I read that the state’s radiation control program was investigating MIT and Bates. What were the allegations? Why was the state investigating MIT?
According to MIT’s conversations with the inspection team from the Massachusetts Radiation Control Program (MRCP, a program of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services), an individual alleged that MIT failed to adequately secure radioactive material at the Bates facility, potentially exposing employees and visitors to radioactive contaminated equipment. A second allegation was reported to the NRC Region 1 office. A concerned individual (CI) called the NRC Region 1 office and stated that “at MIT Bates in Middleton [there] was a leak of radiation as to which MIT could not identify the source and that student’s dosimeters were maxed out.” The CI requested to remain anonymous. These allegations were investigated via the MRCP special inspection process. The MRCP responded to the CI as follows: “The concerns as you raised are considered very serious matters. Your information has prompted this Agency (MRCP) to launch an investigation of the described circumstances, as they relate to radiation safety and to compliance with the agency’s regulations and the radioactive materials license conditions for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”
What steps were taken in response?
The MRCP conducted announced inspections at the Bates facility on October 22, 2019 and November 14, 2019 in response to these allegations. In addition, a special unannounced security inspection was conducted by the MRCP accompanied by the CI on November 19, 2019.
The goal of the inspections was to examine activities at Bates as they relate to radiation safety and compliance with the agency’s regulations. The lead inspector gave a brief overview of the allegation and the expectations for the inspections (site tour, records review for waste disposal, dosimetry, training, and general site use). The inspectors toured the site and reviewed records from 2005 to the present of all radioactive waste disposal activities (shipments), radiation worker exposure records (dosimetry), radioactive source inventory, and training for all persons who work at or visit Bates. The inspections included observations by inspectors and interviews with personnel.
MIT takes such allegations very seriously and worked with the MRCP as it conducted inspections and completed its report.
What was the outcome?
On November 7, 2019 and December 3, 2019, the MRCP issued letters stating that no items of noncompliance were found as a result of these inspections, clearing MIT of any wrongdoing. At no time were employees or visitors exposed to harmful materials.
I visited/live near/work at the Bates Research and Engineering Center in Middleton. Should I be concerned about radioactive materials?
No, you should not be concerned. MIT dedicates resources to have an onsite Radiation Protection Program (RPP) team at Bates that implements appropriate programs to keep the site and researchers compliant with regulations, provide a safe working area for radiation and non-radiation workers, and protect the general public and the environment while allowing creative, breakthrough research to continue. This is accomplished through a series of control programs that include project risk assessments, work training, radiation surveys and monitoring, waste management, and emergency response.
Visitors to the Bates Lab are provided personal dosimeters to monitor for potential radiation exposure. During the past two decades, no visitor has ever received a radiation exposure above natural background levels for that geographical area. In the Middleton/Danvers area, we receive approximately 1 millirem of radiation exposure per day from natural sources. For comparison, a passenger on a round trip flight from Boston to Los Angeles would be exposed to approximately 4-5 millirems of radiation due to the natural background cosmic radiation present at 35,000 feet.
For more information on natural background radiation review this information from the EPA.
What kind of radiation-related training do employees and other personnel at Bates receive?
The Bates facility primarily conducts nuclear and particle physics research and development. When employees begin working at Bates, they receive standard ancillary, non-radiation worker training that makes them aware that research involving radiation is conducted on site. The facility is also marked with signs posted in affected areas stating “Caution: Radioactive Material,” which are a regulatory requirement. Employees whose research requires them to actively work with radioactive material receive additional radiation worker training. Any non-radiation workers at Bates would only be exposed to natural background levels of radiation consistent with the levels for this geographic area
Why not remove all radioactive material on site?
Current research and development projects at the Bates facility require the use of radioactive sources for detector development or calibration. In addition, there are components of the linear accelerator that have some radioactive sections that have value for future experimental use. MIT has been reconfiguring the Bates site over the years, decontaminating, dismantling, and disposing of older parts along the way.
Over time, radioactive isotopes decay, or disintegrate, to harmless materials. A review of the radioactive material in the process of decontamination was included as part of the MRCP’s recent visits to Bates, which found no items of noncompliance.
Is the facility being decommissioned? Why not?
No. The unique facilities at Bates enable leading-edge research activities in nuclear and particle physics, serving the Laboratory for Nuclear Science and other laboratories at MIT as well as the DOE, private industry, and other universities around the world.
When MIT took over the Bates facility from the DOE in 2005, this transaction made MIT responsible for shouldering the costs of decontamination and any future decommissioning of the facilities/site if and when MIT determines that the site is no longer needed for its current mission. As part of the transfer, and in exchange for a release and indemnification from MIT for contamination-related liabilities, the DOE provided a payment to MIT. A portion of this funding has been used on the decontamination and dismantling of some parts of the facility. Should MIT want to decommission the site in the future, the DOE would have no role in the process.
The Bates Research and Engineering Center continues to conduct accelerator research on site, and the linear accelerator itself is still here. Neither federal nor state agreements or regulations require MIT to decommission the linear accelerator or the site.