DOE to investigate PNNL beryllium protection

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJune 26, 2014 

An investigation will look at possible shortcomings in the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's program to protect workers from beryllium.

The Department of Energy's Office of Independent Enterprise Assessments notified PNNL of the investigation this week. The office took over the functions of the DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security in May.

PNNL, in Richland, discovered problems in its program and reported them.

"PNNL takes any safety program deficiency like this very seriously," said PNNL spokeswoman Susan Bauer. "Providing a safe place to work for all of our employees is paramount."

Although PNNL did not fully implement all DOE beryllium protection program requirements, it has a high degree of confidence that it has protected workers based on the results of its sampling for beryllium over more than a decade, she said.

Beryllium, a metal, can cause a chronic and incurable lung disease in workers who breathe in fine particles of it, if they are among the small percentage of workers who have a genetic sensitivity to beryllium. One former PNNL worker is known to have chronic beryllium disease.

Concerns about beryllium protection at PNNL were raised when workers asked if a piece of equipment that had been moved had been sampled for beryllium, Bauer said. That resulted in a senior management review of the beryllium program across the lab, she said.

PNNL found that some work had been performed that did not adequately characterize the hazard for beryllium in places not usually accessible to employees, such as above ceiling tiles. PNNL also found that it did not consistently implement its own monitoring program.

PNNL takes a more conservative approach than required by DOE to beryllium exposure, Bauer said.

PNNL's administrative control limit for airborne beryllium is 0.05 percent of the DOE and Occupational and Safety Health Administration exposure limit, she said.

At very low levels, beryllium workplace contamination is difficult to distinguish from beryllium that naturally occurs in soils in small quantities.

PNNL has tested more than 10,000 samples for beryllium that were collected by wiping surfaces and hundreds of air samples since 2000, Bauer said.

To date it has not found any airborne samples that exceed 10 percent of the DOE exposure limit, which is the level at which DOE requires action be taken.

Beryllium is currently used at PNNL in small quantities in laboratories or in work with manufactured products made of beryllium alloys, such as electrical switch gears.

The primary concern is with any contamination left from past use of beryllium for nuclear science and technology research in a small number of facilities, Bauer said.

Beryllium also has been a concern at Hanford, where beryllium was part of a metal alloy that was machined for the caps of reactor fuel, releasing fine particles.

-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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