IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Seventeen Idaho National Laboratory workers were undergoing full-body scans after they were potentially exposed to low-level plutonium radiation Tuesday while cleaning at the nuclear research site, officials said.
There was no evidence that radiation was released outside the facility, and there was no risk to the public or the environment, the laboratory said in a statement. The workers underwent initial decontamination procedures at their worksite and were taken to the laboratory's medical center for evaluation.
Investigators were at the site trying to determine what went wrong.
The laboratory has designed and constructed 52 reactors since its founding in 1949. There's still active research at the facility, but hundreds of workers are also cleaning up radioactive waste that's left over from more than 60 years of activities, including at the Zero Power Physics Reactor.
The employees were working inside the reactor Tuesday afternoon when a container holding plutonium was opened.
It may be weeks until the extent of the workers' exposure is known, according to the statement from the lab.
The health impacts of plutonium vary depending on the type of plutonium and whether the contaminant becomes trapped in the body. If plutonium gets trapped in the lungs, for example, it could lead to damage to the body's cells, lab officials said.
The 17 employees exposed to the radiation Tuesday will be offered intravenous treatments with calcium or zinc, which binds to the plutonium and expedites its elimination from the body to limit potential harm, the lab's statement said.
Before the Zero Power Physics Reactor was decommissioned in 1992, researchers used it to build and test nuclear reactors more cheaply than constructing an entire power plant.
Last year, cleanup workers had finished removing millions of pounds of steel and other materials that made up the reactor core, but its shell remains – along with plutonium fuel that once powered the reactor.