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Months after radiation leak, researchers getting back to work but First Hill building remains closed

A caution sign hangs from the fence surrounding the loading dock of the closed Harborview Research and Training Building on Feb. 19, 2020. On May 2, 2019, 13 people were exposed to radiation while trying to transport an irradiator from the building. (Image: Conor Courtney)

By Conor Courtney, UW News Lab/Special to CHS

The loading dock looks almost normal, sitting in the shade behind the Harborview Research and Training Building.

But there are no lab technicians running back from their lunch break, no one delivering packages, no movement around the 9th Ave building, which has been closed since May 2, 2019 when 13 people were exposed to a radioactive substance while trying to disassemble an irradiator.

The night of the leak in the middle of First Hill, a Department of Energy team working to remove the irradiator from the building accidently cut into a capsule containing a radioactive powder called cesium-137. The radioactive contamination quickly spread around the loading dock, the first three floors and one of the staircases of the Research and Training Building.

The leak forced responders to turn off the HVAC in the building to prevent the spread of the powder and it remained off for multiple days as officials tried to clean up the leak.

Department of Energy deputy director for public affairs Gregory Wolf said the Department of Energy is handling the remediation and cost of the incident, but did not specify when the building would reopen nor the cost of the remediation.

This shut down had unintended consequences. The Research and Training Building contained freezers that held specimens vital to researchers’ work at -80 degrees celsius for research on alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injury, and dementia, among others, according to Dr. C. Dirk Keene, the Director of the Neuropathology Fellowship Program and the Keene Lab, which was located in the research and training building.

Some samples have profound professional or personal importance, such as brains that have been donated for research on traumatic brain injuries or neurodegenerative disorders.

Days after the HVAC system turned off, some freezers began to fail. Researchers, the Department of Energy, the Department of Health, and University of Washington officials quickly worked to avoid a catastrophic loss of research samples, one researcher said.

“We were actually able to get into the building and transfer the samples from that freezer into another freezer that we had purchased in the 9th and Jefferson building,” said Keene.

The Keene Lab focuses on neurodegenerative disease and traumatic brain disorder, so Keene’s priority after the initial leak was to secure the brains that people had donated for research.

A select group was allowed into the building just days after the initial leak to stabilize the most urgent problems with their research.

Keene and another principal investigator put on full protective clothing, and were chaperoned into areas of high concern for their research. While the Keene Lab was able to secure one freezer, another freezer containing samples from a completed study failed.

Spots where radiation was detected at the loading dock at the Harborview Research and Training Building is marked with white paint on Feb. 19, 2020. The building has been closed since the initial incident on May 2, 2019. (Image: Conor Courtney)

“All of the brain donations are safe and secure,” said Keene. “We don’t really anticipate any significant problems because we have backup freezers in case there’s another failure.”

While the Keene Lab has largely been successful at protecting and maintaining their samples and specimens, there have been significant delays in being able to conduct research.

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, labor, and samples are being lost on a daily basis,” an anonymous source told KIRO in May 2019.

A statement from the University of Washington following the incident estimated the value of the federal research in the building at $13 million. According to the UW School of Medicine, all contents of freezers that were in danger of failing were moved to an offsite location.

Some people in the Keene Lab were out of work for around six weeks, while the lab moved locations, according to Keene, but were supported financially by the University of Washington during that time.

According to Wolf, there are two additional cesium irradiators scheduled to be removed from University of Washington sites this year. However, these are different irradiator models and the radioactive sources will not be removed prior to their shipment.

An ‘extraordinarily severe’ emergency: the radioactive leak at Harborview

For Keene and his lab, the experience has brought some unexpected benefits.

“There were so many friends that I didn’t know I had when this happened who stepped up and offered to support our research and the research of all of the different folks in the building,” said Keene.

Keene said that the lab now shares space at VA Puget Sound, which along with other University of Washington and South Lake Union collaborators, stepped up to help the lab during its time of need.

Now, Keene says he and his lab are trying to view this experience as a positive and looking for new ways to collaborate with other groups.

“We’re trying our best to catch up,” he said.

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11 months ago

The original reporting when the leak happened noted that there were animals used in labs there that had to be relocated. It would have been more robust reporting to have gotten updates on that here. For example, did any of the animals register as having been exposed to radiation? How many projects were impacted by the animals in the building? Did experiments on those animals have to be redone on non-irradiated animals? If so, where did that funding come from and how much extra did it cost? How many labs using animals were impacted by this? What was the count of living animals per species in the building at the time of the accident? Etc.