After the Leak: An Award-winning Response to a Radioactive Material Leak

By
McKenna Princing
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An aerial photo of the Harborview Medical Center campus.
Credit:
Sky Pix
An aerial photo of the Harborview Medical Center campus.
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It was around 8:30 pm on Thursday, May 2, 2019, when Philip Campbell, assistant director of radiation safety for UW, heard news he hoped he would never hear: There was a radioactive material leak at Harborview Medical Center’s Research and Training (R&T) building.

The UW formed the Radiological Release Response Team, of which Campbell is a member, to manage the incident. The team is made up of people from the UW School of Medicine, UW Environmental Health & Safety and Harborview Medical Center. Neither Campbell nor anyone else on the team knew the scale of what they would be facing in the days, weeks and months to come.

Despite having to deal with an unprecedented accident, the team did so with such responsibility, quick thinking and teamwork that 53 team members were given 2020 Awards of Excellence from the UW. Here are a few of their stories.

An unprecedented near miss

Campbell was on-site to oversee contractors’ removal of a device called an irradiator, which contains cesium-137, a radioactive isotope. Irradiators are used in research to study the effects of cell exposure to gamma radiation; but this device was no longer in use, so Campbell had worked with the national government-sponsored Off-Site Source Recovery Program (OSRP) to find a contractor to remove the device. 

Cesium-137 is dangerous; it spreads easily if released and is water-soluble. (It was one of the types of radiation released into the atmosphere after Chernobyl.) Still, while keeping safety in mind, Campbell wasn’t especially worried. Removal of irradiators is standard procedure in the world of radiation safety.

Until, on May 2, it wasn’t. The contractors accidentally cut into the metal tube housing the cesium-137, releasing a small amount of it. According to a March 2020 report from the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, the event was preventable — and a “near miss to a significant event.”

“I’ve dealt with small amounts of contamination that were easy to clean up, we did it on our own with normal decontamination methods that people use in the lab. This is different,” Campbell says.

The night of the leak, Campbell worked with the contractors, Seattle Fire and Harborview employees to get the situation under control — and he had to undergo decontamination.

He’d been using a meter to check radiation levels, and knew they weren’t that high. Still, he had been exposed and had to join the 12 other people — both contractors and employees — moving through Seattle Fire’s decontamination lineup, washing until their bodies and hair showed less cesium, then getting urine tests for potential internal contamination. The process took all night and into the next morning. 

Informing the public

Meanwhile, at 11 pm the night of the leak, Susan Gregg, UW Medicine’s director for media relations, got a phone call. She was used to getting late-night calls to deal with disasters, but a leak of radioactive material was uncharted territory for her.

When going to Harborview’s Emergency Department the next morning to receive current information about the situation, it felt “surreal” to her, she says. She was near the workers who had been exposed to radiation, thankfully none of whom were injured or ill. 

“The good news is I was hearing the levels of radiation workers got was very low, which was an important message I conveyed to the media. In addition, it was good for the public to hear we weren’t concerned about public, community or environment safety, so from that standpoint I felt good,” she says.

Gregg is used to calmly responding to crisis situations and informing local media about them. She led the media response for the 2014 Oso mudslide, the 2015 Ride the Ducks crash, the 2015 Big Four Ice Cave collapse and the January 2020 shooting in downtown Seattle, along with countless other situations. 

Her first step, she says, is always to check in on the people who were impacted. Then, her goal is to get as much accurate information out as is warranted by the situation. It’s about striking a balance between being transparent and informative without sensationalizing. 

“It’s important to be transparent and provide the facts you know rather than hold off to gather more information. When people have information in a crisis, it’s educational and helps relieve anxiety. Imagine with radiation where your mind can go. People want to know it’s safe for them,” she says.

Moving labs

While the general public was safe, the researchers who worked in and whose research was housed in the building were not. Those who had been in R&T at the time of the leak were evacuated, and those who intended on going to their labs the next day weren’t allowed to.

Nicole Gibran, MD, a trauma and burn surgeon at Harborview, helped to find them new workspaces. She had recently been appointed associate dean for research and graduate education and suddenly had 200 labless researchers to worry about — including herself, as her lab was housed in R&T.

“People literally left experiments on their benches and were planning to come back the next day. In weeks after the leak we were still finding tissue samples on counters,” she says.

During the first few days, she routinely checked on all the freezers holding research materials to make sure they weren’t failing — the HVAC in the building had been turned off to prevent the cesium from spreading, and a strange May heatwave was hitting the Seattle area.

Then she had to work on finding space at other UW Medicine facilities for the displaced researchers and their equipment and create access schedules for those who had to share too-small lab spaces. A big part of her job has also been keeping researchers updated on the cleanup progress and providing reassurance, for both researchers and the radiation teams doing the cleanup.

A lingering impact

After more than a year and countless cesium leak-caused delays, Gibran’s research project studying wound healing — one of the many projects displaced by the leak — is finally showing some progress. (“I knock on wood when I say that,” she says.)

The cleanup still has a long way to go, however. Gibran says the current estimated completion date is early January 2021. But she’s more eager than ever for the cleanup to be done, not because of her research but because of something worse than the leak: the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Researchers are crammed into tight quarters, sharing space with colleagues. With the current COVID issue we need space to spread out,” she says.

In terms of lessons learned, Campbell says his biggest takeaway is to always get a written work plan from contractors to make sure there is no misunderstanding in exactly what they plan on doing. Knowing the incident could’ve been much worse is also a sobering thought.

“The source [of radiation] itself was 2,700 curies of activity: Our best guess is only a small fraction of that was released. If the whole source had be released, HMC would not be operating right now,” he says. 

For Gregg, the leak gave her a bit of preparation for what was to come. The large response team wasn’t close to the size of the team she’d be working with once the pandemic began.

Teamwork, it turns out, is what made the cleanup process so successful. Teamwork is also part of the Harborview culture, Gibran says, and that sense of community has helped everyone on the team get their work done.

“The number of people who were critical was much more than who was nominated for the award,” Gibran says.

List of Radiological Release Response Team members awarded

University of Washington named the Radiological Release Response team the 2020 Distinguished Staff Award recipients. The team was nominated for their quick action and response to the unprecedented release of radiological material. 

They are the largest team to date to receive this honor:

  • Meli Ahumada, assistant to the director, EH&S / Office of the Director
  • Alieu Ann, director, Security Services, UW Medicine Health System – Harborview Medical Center
  • Alan Avalos, postdoctoral scholar, School of Medicine/ Department of Comparative Medicine
  • Stephen Bahl, safety professional 2, Environmental Health & Safety Department/ Environmental Programs
  • Edwin Balahadia, animal technician 3, School of Medicine/ Department of Comparative Medicine
  • Denise Bender, assistant director, EH&S / Occupational Safety & Health
  • Laura Campbell, facility operations specialist , School of Medicine/ Department of Comparative Medicine
  • Phil Campbell, Radiation Safety Office, Environmental Health and Safety
  • Cam-Ly Cao, finance manager, EH&S / Planning & Administration
  • Joyce Chambers, Program Operations Specialist, EH&S / Radiation Safety
  • Lesley Colby, associate professor, School of Medicine/ Department of Comparative Medicine
  • Cory Conner, program coordinator, School of Medicine/ Department of Comparative Medicine
  • Karen Crow, outreach & communications specialist, EH&S / Campus Preventive Health
  • Natalie Daranyi, occupational health & safety specialist, EH&S / Occupational Safety & Health
  • Jeff Forister, environmental control technician 3, EH&S / Research & Occupational Safety
  • Tim Fredricksen, director, UW Medicine Health System – Harborview Medical Center
  • Gary Fye, program operations specialist, School of Medicine/ Department of Comparative Medicine
  • Doug Gallucci, assistant director, Environmental Health & Safety Department/ Environmental Programs
  • Nicole Gibran, associate dean for research, School of Medicine
  • Ian Goodhew, director of Government Relations, School of Medicine/ Chief Business Office
  • Susan Gregg, Director, Media Relations , School of Medicine, Strategic Marketing & Communications
  • Alex Hagen, program operations specialist, EH&S / Research & Occupational Safety
  • Tony Han, biosafety officer, EH&S / Research & Occupational Safety
  • Sarah Harris, research scientist/ engineer, School of Medicine/ Department of Comparative Medicine
  • Tracy Harvey, lab safety manager, EH&S / Research & Occupational Safety
  • Taylor Heiss, program pperations specialist, EH&S / Environmental Programs
  • Jennifer Johnson, hospital health physicist, EH&S / Radiation Safety
  • Pam Jorgensen, assistant administrator, UW Medicine Health System – Harborview Medical Center
  • Liz Kindred, environment of care manager, UW Medicine Health System – Harborview Medical Center
  • Amy Lim, program operations specialist, EH&S / Radiation Safety
  • Zara Llewellyn, biological safety manager, EH&S / Research & Occupational Safety
  • John Lynch, associate professor, School of Medicine/ Department of Medicine
  • Kevin Makinson, program operations specialist, EH&S / Radiation Safety
  • Virni Mamaril, program support supervisor, School of Medicine/ Department of Comparative Medicine
  • Tina Mankowski, associate vice president for Medical Affairs, School of Medicine, Strategic Marketing & Communications
  • Matt Moeller, environmental programs manager, EH&S / Environmental Programs
  • Scott Nelson, fire safety & engineering manager, EH&S / Occupational Safety & Health
  • Esi Nkyeker, acting assistant professor, School of Medicine/ Department of Medicine
  • Raymond Noble, program operations specialist, EH&S / Environmental Programs
  • Corbin Powell, radiation safety technician 2, EH&S / Radiation Safety
  • Dean Rashid, facility operations specialist, School of Medicine/ Department of Comparative Medicine
  • Rowen Razon, animal technician 3, School of Medicine/ Department of Comparative Medicine
  • Nick Reyes, Lecturer, School of Medicine/ Department of Comparative Medicine
  • Emily Spaulding, research scientist/ engineer 1, School of Medicine/ Department of Comparative Medicine
  • Eric Stefansson, senior biosafety officer, EH&S / Research & Occupational Safety
  • Mark Volkert, program operations specialist, Environmental Health & Safety Department/ Environmental Programs
  • Eleanor Wade, occupational health & safety specialist, EH&S / Research & Occupational Safety
  • John Wallace, industrial hygienist 2, EH&S / Environmental Programs
  • Mike Warren, director of Facilities & Engineering, UW Medicine Health System – Harborview Medical Center
  • Rick Wells, research scientist, School of Medicine/ Department of Comparative Medicine
  • Kim Wisecup, Manager, space planning & management, School of Medicine/ Chief Business Office
  • Mike Young, facility coordinator, School of Medicine/ Chief Business Office
  • Mike Zittle, manager of Program Operations, EH&S / Radiation Safety

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