Plutonium leak contained at ageing IAEA laboratory

Monday, August 4, 2008

VIENNA, Aug 4 (Reuters) - A small amount of plutonium leaked in an ageing International Atomic Energy Agency laboratory outside Vienna but radioactive contamination was contained to a storage area and no one was injured, the U.N. watchdog said. Last year the IAEA director warned that its main analytical lab built in 1970 was outmoded and no longer met U.N. safety standards, and he called for 27.2 million euros ($42.4 milion) in extra funding from member states to modernise it.

The IAEA said "pressure build-up in a small sealed sample bottle in a storage safe" released a small amount of plutonium at 2:30 a.m. (0030 GMT) on Sunday when no one was in the area.

The leak spread to two neighbouring storage rooms. "All indications are that there was no release of radioactivity to the environment. Further monitoring around the laboratory will be undertaken," an IAEA statement said.

The area was sealed pending decontamination.

Austria's environment ministry confirmed its monitoring stations detected no heightened radioactivity.

"The laboratory is equipped with multiple safety systems, including an air-filtering system to prevent the release of radioactivity to the environment," the IAEA statement said.

An investigation of the incident was under way.

Located within the complex of the Austrian Research Centers in Seibersdorf 35 km (20 miles) southeast of Vienna, the lab analyses samples of nuclear material, mainly plutonium or uranium, taken during agency surveillance missions worldwide.

The IAEA annually analyses some 800 environmental samples collected by inspectors in member states, among them 90 percent of all traces of plutonium, a common atomic bomb fuel.

Last year, IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei said the agency's ability to provide timely sample analysis, a cornerstone of efforts to stop diversions of nuclear materials into bombmaking, was at risk due to ageing technical infrastructure.

Proliferation issues in North Korea and Iran have saddled the IAEA with major investigative challenges in recent years.

The lab could no longer meet the agency's needs nor its safety requirements, and suffered from a severe lack of space, ElBaradei said in a report to the IAEA's board of governors.

He also said that, if a nuclear accident were to happen "tomorrow", the IAEA would be hard-pressed to carry out core functions. ElBaradei has long complained that budget increases approved by the 35-nation board have been inadequate.

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