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NIST Takes Additional Steps to Strengthen Safety at Its Boulder Laboratories

Boulder, Colo. -- Acting upon several internal and external investigations and reports, including a recent safety audit conducted with the assistance of the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) today announced a number of actions it has taken to improve safety at its Boulder, Colo., campus.

The actions respond to safety issues identified following a June 9 plutonium spill at the NIST-Boulder Laboratories.

"These latest actions represent important steps for increasing all aspects of safety of NIST-Boulder laboratories," said Richard Kayser, Interim Director of the NIST-Boulder Laboratories. "Much still needs to be done, but we are grateful for the hard work of NIST staff and associates as well as the input we have been receiving from experts at agencies such as the Department of Energy."

Also today, NIST Deputy Director James M. Turner announced that he is leaving NIST to accept another job at the Department of Commerce as Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Affairs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Patrick D. Gallagher, Director of NIST's Center for Neutron Research (NCNR), has been appointed the new Deputy Director of NIST. Gallagher, a physicist with extensive experience in national policy for scientific user facilities, has worked for 15 years at NIST, serving as Director of NCNR since 2004. Prior to becoming Director of the NCNR, Gallagher served as the NIST representative at the federal National Science and Technology Council, a Cabinet-level policy council chaired by the President.

"With Dr. Gallagher's strong management and safety background, I am confident NIST will continue to move forward on a variety of key initiatives, especially developing and strengthening a comprehensive safety program for NIST," said Commerce Deputy Secretary John J. Sullivan.

Examples of recent actions taken by NIST that are mentioned in a letter to the City of Boulder included the following:

  • NIST has contracted with Energy Solutions, a company licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to decontaminate the laboratory where the plutonium spill occurred. The great majority of the plutonium present in the laboratory already has been recovered and transferred to Los Alamos National Laboratory.

  • The City of Boulder has provided NIST-Boulder with the initial results of the City's testing and monitoring program, which searched for signs of plutonium in the city sewer discharge. The testing so far has revealed no readings significantly different from natural background radiation. Sludge samples also are being tested.

  • Substantial amounts of unused, legacy and excess chemicals have been properly packaged and removed from the campus by NIST-Boulder's regular licensed hazardous waste disposal contractor. The recent increase in hazardous waste disposal is a direct result of both a hazardous materials internal audit conducted by NIST-Boulder, as well as the DOE-assisted safety audit.

  • As a result of the safety audits, four laboratories and a machine shop were shut down, due to potential safety concerns for personnel working in those laboratories. One of these laboratories has reopened following establishment of strengthened procedures. The other three laboratories and the machine shop will be reopened after potential identified problems have been resolved.

  • All hazardous materials disposal issues raised by the DOE-assisted audit have been rectified. Specifically, all hazardous waste is being properly labeled and stored, and additional training has been provided to waste handlers. In waste accumulation areas, improved signage has been posted, required weekly inspections are being documented and logs of materials are being maintained.

  • NIST-Boulder has required all supervisors to meet with their staff, associates and general contractors to identify job-related hazards, specific training and personal protective equipment requirements.

A new NIST Blue Ribbon Commission on Management and Safety also has been established by the Secretary of Commerce to examine NIST as a whole and how safety is managed and implemented NIST-wide. The members of the commission are:

  • Paul A. Croce, former Vice President and Manager of Research, FM Global (retired)
  • Ken Fivizzani, Manager of Chemical Safety Programs, Ondeo Nalco Company
  • Kenneth C. Rogers, Consultant, former Commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (1987-1992) (vice chairman)
  • Charles V. Shank, Sr., Fellow, Janelia Farm Research Center, and former Director, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (1989-2004) (chairman)
  • William VanSchalkwyk, Managing Director, Environmental Health & Safety Programs, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • A. Thomas Young, former Executive Vice President, Lockheed Martin Corporation (retired)

Further information about the Commission is available online.

A report on the DOE-assisted audit of NIST's Boulder Laboratories and a letter to the City of Boulder describing recent NIST safety improvement actions have been provided to the Commission. These documents are available online.

Released September 16, 2008, Updated February 2, 2023