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NRC Issues Citation to MIT for Lax Radiation Safety

By Stacey E. Blau
News Editor

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued a citation to MIT for its failure to properly secure radioactive materials. While the NRC reprimanded MIT, it chose not to issue a fine.

The citation stems from visits the NRC made to MITfollowing the irradiation of postdoctoral researcher Yuqing Li last August. Li, a researcher in the Center for Cancer Research, reported high radiation levels during a self-examination several days after working with phosphorous-32, a radioactive isotope.

The NRC concluded that the poisoning "was most likely the result of a deliberate act by a knowledgeable individual," according the the December report on the incident issued by the NRC.

"The thing that I find disturbing is that apparently [the poisoning] was deliberate," Litster said. "We're a community of scholars, and we place a certain amount of trust in each other."

Our response to the poisoning was very good, Litster said. MIT's handling of the examination of Li was "very competent technically."

"We were very responsive to the NRC," he said. "We were very cooperative."

In response to the poisoning, the NRC visited MIT twice to look into its radiation safety practices.

An investigation team visited MIT in October to gauge how well the Institute abided by safety regulations. The team discovered that several laboratories containing radioactive materials were left unlocked and unattended, said J. David Litster PhD '65, vice president and dean for research and dean for graduate education.

An inspection team visited in December to monitor MIT's progress in stepping up safety, Litster said. The team found a combination padlock meant to secure radioactive materials clicked shut but not spun, Litster said.

Safety may mean less convenience

MIT has agreed to more carefully enforce its current safety practices, but extra attention that will be paid to safety practices could be an inconvenience for researchers.

"Things were not as carefully locked up as they should be," Litster said. Safety regulations should be followed "in order to minimize chances of something going wrong."

"But I think people probably will find their lives somewhat more complicated than they used to be," he said. Enforcing rules more strictly could "inconvenience their research."

The items that were not sufficiently secured were "not terribly dangerous materials," Litster said.

If the perpetrator was a person with authorized access to the materials, the enforcement of rules is "not really going to prevent incidents in the future."

But if the perpetrator was an outsider, the extra caution will "hopefully prevent incidents in the future."

Intake small, but Li reports illness

The Radiation Protection Office found that Li's intake was no more than 579 microcuries of radioactive material, which is within the 600 microcurie acceptable limit for single-event and annual exposure to the chemical.

Since the ingestion, Li has been monitored by the Medical Department and the RPO.

The Washington Post reported in October that a source with detailed knowledge of the case said Li had complained of "vomiting and aches and pains."

But according to Radiation Protection Officer Francis X. Masse, Li did not suffer any symptoms from his radiation exposure. Instead, Masse believes that reports of minor discomfort resulted from Li's stress after the finding.

"[Li] has complained about aches and pains, but I would not think for a minute that that has anything to do with radiation exposure," Masse said.

The allowable limits of radiation exposure were set so that no symptoms would result from levels within them, Masse said.