11-year-old leaking radiation source found in University of Oslo Science Department basement

På dette roterommet sto den farlige strålekilden oppbevart i 11 år.<BR> Ifølge Statnes Strålevern kan flere kilder være på avveie.
Foto: Fredrik Arff

Publish date: January 17, 2004

Written by: Erik Martiniussen

A container leaking possibly cancer-causing radioactive neutrons has for the past 11-years been stored—without protection, security measures or permission from Norwegian radiation officials—in the basement of one of the University of Oslo’s scientific research buildings, Bellona has learned.

It remained unknown Friday what radioactive element the source was, but Universitas, Oslo University’s newspaper, which originally broke the story, said the container housing the strong radiation source had been stored in this condition of neglect since 1992. The container was discovered and removed to the Norwegian Institute for Energy Technology. or IFE, in Kjeller, near Oslo, before Christmas.

Conjecture would suggest that the source contained strontium 90 or a caesium isotope, both of which are common in university laboratory use as sources of power, said a spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, in a telephone interview with Bellona Web Saturday.

The basement room where the container of radioactive material had been stored was, according to local media, unlocked and always accessible to student, staff and cleaning personnel.

By Friday, authorities had not released any figures on how many neutrons the container was emitting and precisely how dangerous these emissions were or what sort of health problems they could have caused over their 11-year sabbatical in the University science department basement.

It was only after a radiation inspection last November that the University of Oslo’s Department of Geosciences was instructed to remove the radioactive source. The Norwegian daily Aftenposten reports that the Department never had ordered any inspection to find out how dangerous the neutron source was.

Students and staff had never been warned about the possible risks associated with the container. As yet, there is no information on how the neutron source ended up in the university’s basement, and who, in anyone, has the original permit for use.

Illegal storage
The Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, or NRPA, Norway’s nuclear regulatory agency, did say that a permit—which the University does not have—is required for storing radiation sources of such strength. NRPA’s Ole Reistad said his agency had never been notified about the University’s radiation source.

This implies that the box of neutron-emitting material may have been stored there illegally.

“The University has a general permit for use and handling of radioactive sources. This permit specifies clearly how the sources should be stored and handled,” Reistad tolds Bellona Web in an interview Friday.

He confirmed that the source found in the University’s basement had never been accounted for. Both Bellona and the NRPA are considering filing criminal charges against the university for not reporting the source.

Trond Bø, chief of the radioactive waste department at the IFE in Kjeller, where the source now is stored, told Aftenposten that the container did not have closing devices, meaning it had been leaking neutrons for the 11 years of its storage in the university basement.. He emphasised that neutron leakage can cause damage to human reproduction and thus children of those who may have had exposure to the source, as well as increasing risks of cancer for those exposed to the box.

At Kjeller, the neutron source has been submergedin a deep pool and all those its vicinity must take special precautionary measures, said Bø.

More inspections and control needed—more sources likely astray
This is not the first incident of the unauthorised storage of a radioactive source in Norway. In February 2003, a radiation source was found on a building site in the in the town of Sandefjord. This was a so-called caesium source weighing 15 kg. Such sources are usually associated with industrial applications.

The source in Sandefjord both had a serial number and a known owner, but no one could explain how and why it had ended up at the building site.

According to NRPA it is likely that more sources surprise radiation sources will appear in years to come.

“We have, of course, a register of the sources at the NRPA, but this is manually based and not very accessible,” Reistad said. “It is very likely there are more sources that have gone astray.”

Bellona is now advocating stricter control on Norwegian radiation sources. Several thousand radiation sources are in use every day, for instance in offshore industry. Sources like the one found at the university add to this number.