A radioactive gauge is missing from a cement manufacturing plant near Gorman that is already under fire from environmentalists because it burns hazardous waste, and a two-week search has failed to find any trace of the gauge, company and state officials said Thursday.
The National Cement Co. plant in Lebec is being investigated by state health officials, who said they expect to cite the company for mishandling the device.
State and federal officials said the amount of radioactive material contained in the device so small that it does not pose a public health hazard.
The radioactive material was sealed inside a container that would prevent harmful exposure. And even if the material were somehow released, the level of radiation would not be strong enough to harm anyone nearby, said Greg Cook, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The missing gauge is just the latest in a series of problems for the cement plant, the only one in California permitted to burn hazardous wastes as fuel. Earlier this month, state health officials fined its operators $350,000 for burning too much waste in 1988 and 1989.
In the latest incident, plant workers and a state health inspector dug up areas of the nearby Lebec Landfill in Kern County on Monday thinking the gauge might have been accidentally thrown out, said Donald Bunn, an official with the state Department of Health Services.
Bunn, who is in charge of compliance for the state's radiologic health office, said the company will be cited for this incident and could face sanctions on its operating license or other legal action.
The company reported the device missing on March 9. Plant Manager Byron McMichael said it had been removed from one building sometime earlier and was taken to a shop on the plant site to await reinstallation elsewhere. "We went to install it and we couldn't find it," McMichael said.
Bunn said he believed the company was not authorized to remove the device and should not have left it in a shop. The company and a state health inspector searched the plant without success. Although the search has been suspended, the company is still questioning its employees about what might have become of the device, McMichael said.
The device is described as a lead pipe about a foot long, containing 20 millicuries of the radioactive material cesium-137. It was one of 19 sensors used at the plant that contains varying amounts of radioactive material. Such sensors are fairly common in industrial manufacturing uses, state officials said.
Even with the shielding removed, the NRC's Cook estimated that a person would have to be closely exposed to the material for more than 83 hours to exceed the NRC's established annual exposure threshold for an individual.
However, state and federal officials also said their policy is to keep radioactive material out of the environment.
Thus, a Gardena business that unknowingly melted what state officials believe may have been a similar device had to be temporarily closed and decontaminated last spring, Bunn said.
The news that the plant had radioactive materials on site came as a surprise to local environmentalists. They said the loss of the gauge illustrates the unreliability of the plant's operations.
"It just goes to show they can't be trusted with what they're doing," said Helen Thornburg, who is a leader of a local environmental group that has repeatedly protested that the burning of hazardous wastes endangers the health of area residents.