Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Jim Olthoff’s Remarks for the Feb. 10 Community Meeting

Remarks as prepared.

Thank you all for joining us this evening. I’m sorry for the short notice of this meeting, but we wanted to schedule it as soon as we could in order to address your questions as quickly as possible. If you or your neighbors find you still have questions after this meeting, or if they could not attend this meeting, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. 

I’m Jim Olthoff, and I’m currently performing the duties of the NIST director while we await the appointment and confirmation of a new director. I’m normally the associate director for laboratory programs which means I am responsible for all of the research programs at NIST. I’ve been at NIST for nearly 34 years. I started here in 1987 as a research physicist after getting my Ph.D. from the University of Maryland.

First and foremost, I want you to know that you are safe, and I will explain how we know that in a moment. The health and safety of our staff and community are our top priority. We take very seriously our commitment to conduct all of our research safely.

NIST has been part of the Gaithersburg community for nearly 60 years, and we treasure that relationship. Many of us live in the surrounding neighborhoods.

We understand that we were initially slow in providing information and that caused some anxiety. We were focused on verifying as much information as possible and should have provided the most basic information: that the community was safe.

In the unlikely event that any activity on the NIST campus were to create a hazard to the community, we would notify our staff and the community immediately, working with local authorities to ensure the message reached the right people.

My goal tonight is to explain what happened last Wednesday and to explain how we know the public remained safe. I will also explain our next steps; why NIST has a research reactor; and why it is a valuable asset to the country. 

But first let me emphasize the most important points.

The research reactor is shut down and in a safe state. It will remain shut down as we determine exactly what happened and chart a path forward. 

Our facility is approved by the NRC based on a design that keeps all releases of radioactivity below regulatory limits, even in the event of a worst-case scenario. These limits are set specifically to protect the public’s health.

Radiation levels outside the facility remained well below regulatory health and safety limits at all times. The maximum radiation release was 200 times below the NRC limits, which confirms that the community remained safe.

We know the radiation levels remained well below regulatory limits because we have air monitors on the ventilation stack and at the perimeter of our campus. Additionally, NIST staff conducted air sampling around the property. These very sensitive monitors all detected radiation well below regulatory limits. 

We also evaluated the wastewater from showers used to decontaminate our staff that was sent into the sewage system, which is separate from the drinking water supply. The concentration of contaminates is estimated to be 1,000 times less than the health and safety regulatory limits. Again confirming that the community and environment remain safe.

The NIST staff members who were exposed to increased levels of radiation inside the facility are healthy and expected to have no health effects. Initial measurements indicate that they received an external dose well below regulatory limits for radiation workers. Once all measurement results are available, we expect them to confirm that the staff experienced an exposure dose comparable to what they would receive while getting a CT scan.

Our employees were also tested for internal exposure, in case they inhaled or ingested any radioactive particles. Tests have shown either no or negligible exposure.

What happened on February 3rd

This event occurred while we were in the process of restarting the reactor after a regularly planned shutdown.

At about 9:10 a.m. sensors detected elevated radiation levels within the confinement building of the NCNR facility.  The confinement building houses the reactor and is a building within the larger NCNR facility.

Immediately after the sensors recorded an increase in radiation levels, the reactor automatically shut down into Safe Mode and the ventilation system sealed the confinement building and began filtering and recirculating air within it.

At that point, we evacuated the confinement building and informed the NRC of an Alert – an Alert is an event notification to the NRC indicating that the public remains safe and any expected release of radioactive materials will be below regulatory limits.

As of now, radiation levels within the confinement building have decreased, as expected, and are near normal.

All indications are that our people responded according to their training and our safety systems performed as designed.

What happens next

NIST has started carefully developing plans to assess what caused the increased levels of radiation. These plans include how we will safely decontaminate surfaces inside the confinement building and then conduct our assessment to determine the root cause.

We will provide an initial report to the NRC within 14 days (which is actually 7 days from today), and that report will be made public on the NRC website. We have been in close communication with the NRC since the event occurred.

The NRC began a special inspection yesterday to evaluate our response, our determination of the root cause of the event and our planned corrective actions. 

Additionally, we plan to engage an external, independent group of experts to assess the event, what might have caused it, and our planned corrective and preventive actions.

NIST’s reputation and mission are built entirely upon trust, and these three independent assessments will ensure that the information and conclusions can be trusted by everyone.

The reactor will remain shut down until it is established that it is safe to restart it.

About the reactor

NIST moved from Washington, D.C., to Gaithersburg in the early 1960s, and the NCNR was completed in 1969. It has operated safely since then, under the close attention of the NRC.

The NRC regularly inspects our facility to ensure it meets all operational requirements for safety and security. It also issues NIST a license to operate the reactor, which was last renewed in 2009 and gives us permission to operate through 2029.

It’s important to note that the NCNR operates to support science – not produce power. It produces just 20 megawatts of thermal power compared with a nuclear power reactor, which produces at least 100 times as much power. Our research reactor is much smaller and simpler than a power reactor. 

The research reactor produces streams of neutrons that allow us to peer into materials and observe processes that are impenetrable to other methods. Think of it as something like an X-ray machine that can look through metals. The reactor operates about 240 days a year, supporting 3,000 researchers from 50 U.S. companies, 180 universities and 30 other U.S. government agencies.

Nearly half of all neutron research in the U.S. is conducted at the NCNR.

The results of work conducted at the NCNR are published widely and posted on the NIST public website and shared through our social media accounts.

This research conducted at the NCNR ranges from improving pharmaceuticals and fuel cells, to archaeology and developing new materials. Just in the past year, the NCNR has helped reveal the structure of a vaccine that might protect against a life-threatening respiratory virus called RSV. It’s been used to develop a way to sense electric fields through walls, which could be useful for security applications. And it has studied how medicine moves through small syringes, which helps ensure that patients receive the proper dose of medicine. 

In closing, I’d like to emphasize that we are committed to determining what went wrong and fixing it, and we are committed to ensuring that all NIST’s research activities are conducted safely. 

I hope I have answered many of your questions, but if I have not, please use the Q&A function on your screens to submit a question now, or submit an email to NISTG_CommunityAffairs [at] (NISTG_CommunityAffairs[at]nist[dot]gov)

Created February 23, 2021