- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

Personnel from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were to meet today with a Wisconsin firm that lost a gauge containing a sealed capsule of radioactive material in December and mistakenly sent it to China.
NRC staffers will meet with representatives of Stora Enso North America, a paper manufacturing company based in Wisconsin Rapids, for a "predecisional enforcement conference to discuss apparent violations of NRC regulations associated with the loss," the agency announced.
The gauge, which contained a capsule of cesium-137, was lost during dismantling of equipment and piping that Stora Enso North America sold to a paper mill in China, according to NRC spokesman Victor Dricks.
"The company has about 10 or 20 of these gauges that contained cesium-137, which they use to measure the thickness of paper during the manufacturing process," he said.
There were 200 millicuries of cesium-137 in the gauge that wound up in China. If removed from the metal camera-style device that encapsulated the radioactive material, Mr. Dricks said, it could expose someone carrying the gauge on his person to "many times the annual radiation exposure limit for an individual" and could cause "severe health effects," possibly even death.
The quarter-sized gauge that went to China was attached to a metal beam that was part of the equipment purchased by the Asian paper mill.
"The gauge should have been marked with yellow paint so the subcontractors dismantling that equipment wouldn't have taken it along," Mr. Dricks said.
He noted that an NRC inspector not Stora Enso discovered the gauge missing in January. A company representative traveled to China and found the gauge Jan. 31, still attached to a portion of the original piping.
The NRC said the gauge was locked in a secure, shielded position. As such, he said, it would not have presented a safety hazard. The gauge was placed in a secure location until arrangements could be made to return it to Wisconsin.
At the conference today at an NRC regional office in Lisle, Ill., consideration will be given to three apparent NRC safety violations the agency has identified:
Failure to control and maintain constant surveillance of radioactive material.
Failure to clearly label the gauge as containing radioactive material.
Failure to ensure that the gauge was removed by persons licensed for such work.
Repeated attempts to reach Stora Enso North America yesterday were unsuccessful.
Mr. Dricks said, "there are about 2 million radioactive sources" across the United States. Users include medical facilities, industries, government agencies and nuclear power plants.
He said cases in which radioactive material is lost or misplaced are "infrequent."
More common, he said, are situations where devices containing radioactive material are stolen from jobs or work sites or are abandoned. In the past five years, there have been an average of 300 such cases per year, he said.
"There have been cases where [nuclear power] plants lost entire fuel rods," said Paul Fain, spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
But Mr. Dricks said that happened years ago at the Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford, Conn., and unlike the Wisconsin gauge, the fuel rod was never found. "We think it's been disposed of, buried in a low-level nuclear waste site," he said yesterday in an interview.
Mr. Fain said he's certain the amount temporarily lost by Stora Enso North America was small in comparison. "Still, it's a good thing the NRC is taking it seriously," he said in an interview yesterday.

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