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Impact from 2014 radioactive spill at TU

by: Katie Higgins Updated:

TULSA, Okla. - Quick facts:

  • Radioactive spill at University of Tulsa
  • Outside company on campus caused spill in 2014
  • FOX23’s Katie Higgins is digging into Department of Environmental Quality records to get an update

 

A radioactive spill on the University of Tulsa’s north campus was kept relatively quiet for almost two years.

The University of Tulsa is one of the state’s top researchers using radioactive material. It helps Oklahoma’s economy, but if it’s not handled appropriately, it can hurt people.

“Radioactive equipment is relatively important to the Oklahoma economy because it’s very commonly used in the pipeline industry,” said Fenton Rood of the Oklahoma Department of Quality.

The University of Tulsa was using it for research in the fall of 2014. The university hired an outside company, Tracerco of Texas, to handle some of the radiation work.

“We routinely do inspections. We do not routinely find spills,” said Rood.

Rood said some of the material spilled in October 2014, and the spill was not handled according to protocol.

“The spill occurred inside a shed,” he said.

Documents claim that Tracerco was using a generator with caesium-137, and a connector broke, which was considered a significant malfunction.

The safety administrator from the University of Tulsa was not overseeing the process.

“He has since said that if he was aware, he would have been there measuring himself,” said Rood.

Even if he had been overseeing the process, records show that University of Tulsa detection tools were not calibrated at the time and Tracerco employees tried to fix the machine on site.

“That was outside the scope of their permit,” Rood said.

Rood said that could have made the spill worse. Instead of immediately testing for a spill, the Tracerco team packed up its equipment and left, according to the documents.

During a routine check 6 months later, Tracerco found contamination at its Pasadena storage facility.

The spill wasn't confirmed on the University of Tulsa campus, where workers were unknowingly being exposed, until almost a year later.

“If you’re exposed to a little over a long time, it can increase your chances of diseases like cancer,” said Rood.

The north campus research center was tested. Insulation, office chairs, concrete, carpet and more had to be removed.

Employees and their personal items were also tested, including car upholstery, a work jacket and shoes. One worker's bedroom carpet had to be taken out because of contamination.

“We were worried that it was tracked out,” Rood said.

Tests showed that levels were relatively low and only one worker was exposed to more than the legal limit. All workers involved were tested, but none showed any signs of bodily harm.

“Should the general public worry about it? In my opinion, no. We worry about it because any level of radiation, even in this research facility, is not appropriate,” Rood said.

Rood said that if a worker does become ill in the future, it will be hard to say if it’s directly related to the exposure.

DEQ has since visited the University of Tulsa and said it has made significant safety upgrades.

There is ongoing litigation about the issue from both sides, and Rood said there are personal lawsuits pending as well.

Tracero sent FOX23 this statement:

"Tracerco takes health and safety extremely seriously -- including the health and safety of the students, faculty and staff at TU, and all of its neighbors – and we want to ensure that information provided to the public is accurate and based on facts. As such, we’d respond as follows to certain of Mr. Rood’s comments:
  • Tests by both TU’s and Tracerco’s experts establish that no one was exposed to levels above those the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) have determined to be safe.
  • Everyone is exposed to low levels of radiation, every day. The radiation levels involved in the release are roughly equivalent to those a person receives on a round-trip flight from New York to Los Angeles, or when visiting Colorado for a few weeks. There is no data establishing an increased risk of cancer at these levels which have been determined to be safe by NRC and DEQ.
  • There are no “personal lawsuits” pending.
  • Tracerco’s license doesn’t bar it from repairing the generator that failed.
Tracerco understands and appreciates that this is a serious matter. We’re cooperating with DEQ’s investigation, we’ve thoroughly remediated TU’s research facility, we’ve taken several actions, as a company, to ensure that a spill like this can’t happen again, and we will continue to work with DEQ to clarify the matters discussed by Mr. Rood. More information on many of these issues will be provided in a statement that Tracerco will be filing with DEQ on Monday."

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