Oak Ridge Plant Y-12 Uncovers Respirator Contamination

An investigation at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge has found that workers have been using contaminated respirators since at least February of 2009, the Knoxville News reported Saturday.

Bill Reis, vice president for environment, safety and health at the plant, said radiation technicians had surveyed thousands of pieces of respirator equipment that had been shipped off-site to Global Solutions for cleaning and then returned to Y-12 in sealed packages, supposedly certified as clean. However, about 10 percent of the equipment was found to have exceeded specified radioactivity levels specified, including 503 respirator masks and 101 breathing tubes, which were returned to Y-12 at various times over the past three years, according to Reis.

Officials do not believe that workers were harmed, as any significant amount of radiation would have surfaced in routine screening tests.

"The reason we're not here freaking out is we have this other data (for evaluating radiation exposures)," Reis said.

The investigation also has uncovered another problem. One of the sealed packages contained respiratory equipment that was contaminated with radioactive cobalt-60, a material that is not used at Y-12, raising concerns about cross-contamination at the Unitech plant. 

Global Solutions is a small business based in Maryland in partnership with UniTech and has held the contract since 2010. A moratorium using UniTech is in effect while the investigation continues, although it has not been decided whether Y-12 will cancel the contract

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