Labs Improve Handling of Radioactive Waste
Two years ago, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) officials inspecting Harvard labs found scientists using radioactive materials without wearing protective lab coats or film badges to monitor exposure. Instead, the researchers wore shorts.
This incident was one of at least eight NRC safety violations Harvard has been cited for in the past ten years, according to a Saturday article in the Boston Globe.
But University officials say radioactive safety at Harvard has experienced a turnaround. Labs have been continually improving procedures for working with radiation and for radioactive waste disposal.
"We have an educational program with faculty and students and monthly random inspections," Harvard's Director of Federal and State Government Relations Kevin Casey said yesterday.
"All of the standards we set for [the Harvard safety] program are above NRC standards," he said.
The new procedures seem to be working. No violations were found in Harvard's most recent NRC inspection last February.
But some government safety officials maintain that university labs pose a greater potential for safety violations, and Harvard is singled out for its eight NRC violations.
Handling of radioactive materials is a problem at universities because college professors and students are often "lackadaisical" about following proper procedures, according to Robert Hallisey, director of the Massachusetts Radiation Control Program.
But University officials say scientists are paying more attention to regulations than they have in the past.
"The professors and researchers are really working with us now. They're more cautious, more responsive, more interested," Joseph Ring, senior health physicist for Harvard's Radiation Protection Office said yesterday.
Fear of having a research license revoked acts as a deterrent for careless behavior, according to Ring.
But Harvard's own Radiation Protection Office does not use suspension as a means to compel scientists to follow regulations, according to Ring.
"Our real goal is not to cite [researchers] but to help them to do their research and continue to do their research," Ring said.
David B. Walch, a sixth-year biology graduate student, said the researchers appreciate the non threatening role assumed by Harvard's regulatory agency.
"[The Radiation Protection Office] makes us feel that [they are] a resource we can use rather than a mean authority that's going to come down on us if we do anything wrong," he said.
The issue of radioactive waste disposal, however, is becoming more complicated, some say.
The closing of the nation's only major disposal site in July 1994 forced universities to begin storing radioactive waste on campus.
But University officials say the fact that Harvard was prepared for the shutdown demonstrates the extent of Harvard's turnaround.
"We realized we might be required to store whatever we made on site," Casey said. "Harvard reduced its production [of radioactive waste] astronomically."
The type of waste Harvard previously stored at the national site makes up only 0.4% of the radioactive waste produced in University labs, according to Ring.
The waste now occupies about "half a drum" in a specially designed room in the basement of the Albert Building at the Medical School, Ring said.
Other radioactive waste produced by Harvard is stored at a site in Southboro, Massachusetts, Casey said.