Radioactive materials in Pickard Hall


George Sarafianos

Photo by George Sarafianos
On Nov. 17, 2009, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commision became aware of the presence of naturally occurring radioactive material in Pickard Hall, located on the corner of Ninth Street and University Ave. at The University of Missouri-Columbia.
The building was at one point a place for radiation research from 1913 to the mid 1930s, but because of the update of the USNRC’s policies, the Museum had to close its doors on Oct. 1, Alex Barker, the director of the Museum of Art and Archeology, formerly located at Pickard Hall, said.
“I think that people knew about it for a long time. But up until about seven years ago that radioactive material was covered under state law,” Barker said. “Since the law has changed, it came under federal control and those guidelines are very different. There was a lot more monitoring and more move to take care of that material.”
The USNRC is an independent federal agency in charge of regulating the nation’s civilian use of byproduct, source and special nuclear materials to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety. Because of The Energy Policy Act of 2005, the USNRC’s regulatory jurisdiction became larger to include discrete sources of Radium-226, a naturally occurring radioactive material. Said material locatred in Pickard Hall, Mary Aldrich, Senior Health Physicist in Mizzou’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety, said.
“Pickard opened in 1895, which is the same year that Wilhelm Rontgen discovered X-rays. The next year Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity when a photographic plate is exposed after storing a rock on it. Three years after Pickard opened, in 1898 the Curies discovered Polonium and Radium. So Pickard opened for business just as the science of radioactivity was being discovered and it was a pivotal time,” Aldrich said. “By the 1920s scientists were clearly aware of the benefits of radioactive material. They knew that they could diagnose and treat diseases with X-rays and radioactive material. Radium -226 was being used in cancer treatment and it commanded a high price tag 8 grams was worth nearly $1,000,000 in 1920-1930 dollars. They were aware of risks by this time as well. They established the shielding and other safety practices were needed.”
One research project conducted by Dr. Herman Schlundt involved figuring out how to process the raw uranium ore to separate out the valuable daughter products like Radium-226. The plan was to see if it was feasible to process the ore at the mine site instead of transporting raw ores by train all the way to a processing plant. This experimental process is likely the source of the residual contamination. That is not to say, however, the entire building is contaminated, nor its artifacts, Dr. Barker said.
“There are some areas where testing has been done and we have found it, but there are other areas we haven’t been able to test. The building has been renovated since the 1970’s and there are areas you cannot easily get to without disturbing all the museums collections. There are areas where there seems to be contamination and other areas that do not,” Barker said. “A large portion of the objects have been tested and we have found no signs of radiation with any of them. The problem isn’t that there is radiation at the surface or that it has gotten into the works of art. It’s more so when it gets into the walls and floor, you can then get into an area that has radiation so up until now, we haven’t been able to find things that have been damaged or contaminated by radiation.”
With their relocation to Mizzou North campus, the entire museum staff, including Dr. Barker, now spend the focus of their days on moving everything into their new location.
“The entire staff has just been working on the move now for several months and will continue to do nothing else until the end of the calendar year. We closed the museum at the end of September and has been continuing six days a week since then,” Barker said. “We don’t know how long we will be at Mizzou North, because we don’t know how long the process of fixing will take.”
Although the USNRC has deemed Pickard “habitable,” Aldrich said, they still need to excavate the building of radioactive materials, which could take any amount of time.
“We are obligated to adhere to current NRC regulations and we do need to remove residual contamination that is present in places like abandoned drain lines, subsurface concrete and old fume hood vents. In order to do this the University needed time to figure out how to achieve this so we requested a delay in order to figure this out.
“Ultimately the decision was made to move the museum and begin the process of ‘decommissioning,’” Aldrich said. “It is difficult to predict how long the decommissioning process will take. The first step is moving the museum and staff and that is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The next step will be to evaluate the building and to fine tune exactly where contamination is present, how much is there and how to most safely remove it. This is called the characterization phase and the goal is have that completed within a year. Following that a facility would submit a plan to the NRC that outlines how they plan to decontaminate the facility and once that is approved, work can begin.”
The University has not hesitated in making sure to keep things on track in order to have the museum open as soon as possible, according to Christian Basi, spokesperson for The University of Missouri-Columbia.
“The Museum is utilized by many people throughout the community. By moving the museum to Mizzou North, we are able to keep it open,” Basi said. “We hope it will continue to be used as an important resource by the Columbia community, our students and our faculty.”
Full Disclosure: Author of story interviewed relative.
By George Sarafianos