Radium thrown out as scrap in university blunder

A CATALOGUE of errors led to a Yorkshire university losing a piece of radioactive material which was accidentally sent to a scrap metal yard on the back of a tractor trailer.

A major alert was sparked last year when it was discovered that radioactive radium 226 had gone missing from a machine which had been dismantled by staff at York University's biology department. It was found four days later after being mistakenly sent to a scrapyard in York and then to a recycling plant in Sheffield.

The results of an internal investigation have emerged which says staff who dismantled the machine failed to carry out a risk assessment and "did not recognise or realise the hazards".

A report, published through the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that a lecturer who decommissioned the RackBeta Machine did not realise which part of the equipment contained radioactive material.

The investigation also raises concern about the "competency" of a supervisor who it claims failed to carry out a risk assessment and asked for "inappropriate" tests to be carried out which would not have established whether a sealed source of radiation had been contaminated.

University staff believed the radium 226 was inside a lead chamber which was successfully removed and placed in storage. However, the radium was actually inside a steel tube which fell to the floor during dismantling and was thrown out as scrap.

The radioactive material was sent on the back of a tractor to a scrap metal merchant in York and then on to a recycling plant in Sheffield.

The mistake only came to light when the lead box was opened by a specialist firm which realised it did not contain any radioactive material.

The university organised medical checks and contamination equipment was used to carry out two sweeps of its biology department within 24 hours, which both produced negative results.

The steel tube was discovered intact in Sheffield.

A York University spokesman said an immediate and detailed investigation traced the missing "tiny" amount of radium 226 within four days and likely public exposure was minimal.

Procedures on dealing with radiation have been tightened.