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Chairmen Concerned About What Plutonium Spill Reveals

Jun 20, 2008
Press Release

(Washington, DC) – Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, with Technology and Innovation Subcommittee Chairman David Wu and Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairman Mark Udall, sent a letter to Dr. James Turner, Acting Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), to express their concern over the handling of a June 9th plutonium spill at the NIST Boulder, Colorado Laboratory. 

The Chairmen were relieved that nobody was injured in the incident and that the risk from radioactivity from the 0.25 grams of plutonium was very low.  However, the Chairmen were troubled that the details of the incident have changed since the Committee was initially briefed on June 10th. 

“We are troubled that the scope of the incident has changed since the Committee was first briefed,” said Gordon.  “A week after being told the contamination was contained and proper procedures were followed, radioactive contamination was discovered in the lab sink—indicating that a quantity of the plutonium had been washed down the drain.  We’re investigating the status of NIST’s safety procedures.” 

“Though I have received assurances from NIST and local officials that the public’s safety has not been compromised as a result of this incident, I remain troubled by the prospect that this contamination could have ended up in the local sewer system,” Udall said.  “My office has been in close contact with the City of Boulder and will continue to work with local and state authorities to ensure the safety of area residents.  In the meantime, I am seeking answers from NIST as to how this situation could have been allowed to occur in the first place.”

The letter asked for a number of documents to enable to Committee to review NIST’s environmental, health, and safety protocols and the details and response to this specific incident.  The Committee has also asked for copies of communications with NIST Boulder employees not involved in the incident and communications with appropriate local, county, and state officials.     

“I respect the commendable work done by many dedicated researchers at NIST, but am very concerned about this incident,” said Wu.  “I hope that, as the committee learns more, we find that it is an isolated occurrence and is not indicative of a larger problem.  I urge NIST to comply with the Committee’s request for additional documentation as quickly as possible so that we can get to the bottom of what happened.”

The Science and Technology Committee has jurisdictional oversight of NIST.  The Committee will perform vigorous oversight of this issue and hold NIST accountable for maintaining the highest laboratory health and safety standards.

For more information, please see the Committee website

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110.280

110th Congress