Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2021
By Christine Manwiller
On February 3, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland had a radiation leak during the restart of its research reactor. Temperatures inside a single fuel element reached over 850⁰ F leaving it damaged. An alarm sounded, and the reactor was shut down. Although the amount of radiation released has not been revealed, it was high enough to warrant decontamination of ten employees who were then sent home. Federal regulators revealed later that the leak was “three times higher than originally thought.” This fact was followed with the assurance that the leak posed no danger to thousands of residents living in homes or visiting several large shopping centers close to the reactor. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported a month later that it was “satisfied that people around and near NIST remain safe.” However, the National Academy of Sciences concluded in its book-length Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation-VII that any amount of radiation exposure is dangerous, especially for women and girls.
Residents around the NIST complex were “alarmed” that they were not notified about the incident. No official announcement was made. The fact that workers were exposed to radiation and evacuated is unusual. David Lochbaum, a nuclear researcher with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says, “It’s alarming and uncommon to hear of an incident that requires the evacuation of workers inside a reactor.” The level of caution prompting decontamination and evacuation of workers would also warrant notification of local communities. Four months later the reactor remains shut down.