A Halliburton Co. shipment of radioactive material that landed in New York in October was lost en route to Texas, and was not found until Wednesday, when it turned up in Boston.
The material – two sources of the element americium, used in oil well exploration – was found intact at a freight facility after an intense search by federal authorities. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it was not alerted to the missing shipment until Tuesday.
Both the NRC and Halliburton officials said Thursday that the public never was in danger.
The americium was being shipped from Russia to Houston, Halliburton said in a report filed with the NRC. On Thursday, the company blamed the shipper – Greeneville, Tenn.-based Forward Air – for losing track of the material and failing to tell Halliburton it had been misplaced.
A spokesman for Forward Air did not return calls for comment.
NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the agency was not told about the missing material until Tuesday. Depending on the material, government rules require notification either immediately or within 30 days.
“The focus through today was on trying to find the material,” Sheehan said. “We’re going to be pressing them on why the notification was not more timely.”
Halliburton spokeswoman Wendy Hall said the shipping company improperly labeled the material and sent it to the wrong location. She said Halliburton contacted the shipper “multiple times” about the package and was told repeatedly it was en route to Houston.
She said Halliburton was told in late December that the material had been shipped to Texas, but after more calls, the shipping company acknowledged Tuesday it could not find it. Halliburton then immediately notified the NRC, she said, and a review of surveillance tapes enabled authorities to locate the shipment in Boston.
Hall said the material was encased in a double-walled stainless steel cylinder that was locked in a steel transport container designed to protect workers.
“All of this was found intact, and we have no information that leads us to believe that the public or environment were in danger,” Hall said.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a frequent critic of the NRC, said the incident highlights inadequate security measures covering radioactive materials. The americium has the potential to permanently injure a person who fails to handle it properly, he said.
Markey said the lag time in reporting the disappearance of dangerous materials leaves open the possibility they could fall into the hands of terrorists without the government’s knowledge.
“This is a shocking demonstration of the inadequacies of our current tracking system,” said Markey, adding that the NRC must immediately improve its system of tracking radioactive material.
The NRC report indicates the material was trucked to Massachusetts after a Boston label was inadvertently placed on the package at the freight company’s Newark, N.J., facility.
Markey said he will introduce legislation next week requiring the NRC to put a full tracking system in place. The NRC has said it will take several years for a system to be completed.
On the Net:
Nuclear Regulatory Commission: http://www.nrc.gov