Radioactive equipment removed from Harborview campus months after spill

VIDEO: Radioactive equipment removed from Harborview campus months after spill

SEATTLE — Two and a half months after a radiation spill at the Harborview Medical Center- University of Washington building, crews finally removed a piece of radioactive piece equipment from the campus Wednesday.

It's a major step in addressing the radiation leak that happened May 2, but the U.S. Department of Energy says there is still a lot of work ahead to get the building completely safe.

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The DOE brought in dozens of people after the leak to handle the situation, and staffing reached a peak this week, when 70 people were brought in to help coordinate moving the radioactive source to a DOE lab in Richland.

Only Chopper 7 was overhead capturing the scene as crews loaded up radioactive materials into a giant, lead-lined metal cylinder. The container is called RH-72B and is licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the safe transport of radioactive material.

“It’s very heavy, tens of thousands of pounds total,” said Al Stotts, a spokesperson for the DOE.

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“We've reached the conclusion of the first major task. Tthe damaged source has been removed safely from the building behind us,” Stotts said.

The DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration said there is still significant cleanup work ahead.

Back in May, federal contractors were working to remove an old machine called an irradiator that was being used to sterilize blood.

KIRO7 learned after the spill that crews were working to take out the radioactive part of the machine with a grinder when something went wrong and they spilled a  fine radioactive powder containing cesium-137.

The powder also got inside the Research and Training Building at 300 Ninth Ave, possibly through the building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.

“Strikes a little close to home in this particular instance,” said Paul Prieste, who stopped to watch the crews work Wednesday.

“I couldn't believe it. There were firetrucks all up and down here on both sides of the street,” said Edward Bardot, who lives nearby.

Hazmat crews sealed off the area, and the building has been shut down since, meaning hundreds of people can’t come to work.

This week the DOE brought in heavy equipment and a large crane to transport the radioactive part of the irradiator – a 1-foot-long by 1-inch-wide capsule.

It was tucked into the giant metal cylinder, which is bookended by large shock absorbers.

“Should there have been any sort of accident, those ends would've protected the cylinder in the middle,” Stotts said. “Finally, after a lot of time and effort, we were able to remove the source safely."

The next step is a focus on cleanup, which could take weeks or even months longer.

The DOE says at the lab in Richland, the radioactive capsule will be measured to determine how much material is left and how much was spilled. The DOE is investigating what went wrong that caused the leak in the first place.

The DOE says it is the first breach of a radioactive source in the DOE Off-Site Source Recovery Program.

Statement from the DOE: 

The radioactive source that was accidentally breached May 2 at the University of Washington Research and Training Building in Seattle was safely removed from the building Tuesday evening, July 16, and transported to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, WA, for forensic analysis. The breach occurred while a piece of equipment was being removed by U.S. Department of Energy contractors. Once the analysis is complete, the capsule will be re-packaged and prepared for shipment to a permanent waste disposal facility.
PNNL has the facilities and staff to do a thorough analysis of the damaged source. The work will be conducted by PNNL scientists and engineers in their Radiochemical Processing Laboratory (RPL). This unique facility has long been used by PNNL to develop solutions needed to clean up radiological and hazardous waste, safeguard the U.S. and its allies against nuclear proliferation, and ensure safe operation of nuclear power plants.

Now that the source has been removed, all contaminated areas in the Research and Training Building will be remediated by the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractors to a level that meets the “free release” standard the Washington State Department of Health sets for allowing the general public -- including building occupants and laboratory personnel and facilities and maintenance personnel – to be in the building. A timeline for reoccupation is pending.