YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Community News: Southeast

SOUTH GATE : Security Tightened After Cesium Scare

March 07, 1993|DUKE HELFAND

An oil exploration firm has taken new security measures after the alleged theft of potentially lethal radioactive material last month, the head of the oil exploration supply company said.

However, a state health official said Flo-Log Inc. has been ordered to stop using sealed radioactive materials until the state completes its investigation of the incident.

A cigarette lighter-sized vial of cesium-137 was discovered missing from the Firestone Boulevard company Feb. 17, setting off a statewide search for the powdery substance between South Gate and an oil field near Willows in Northern California where the material had last been used.

An anonymous telephone tip led company officials Feb. 25 to an area beside the Firestone Boulevard on-ramp of the Long Beach Freeway, where the missing container of cesium was found.

"They did an outstanding job in searching for this thing once they lost it, but that doesn't placate the fact that they lost it," said Donald Bunn, the state Department of Health Services official in charge of radioactive material. "We are telling them that they have to . . . come in with a better control plan."

Cesium-137 is an isotope used in medicine to treat certain cancers and in oil exploration, where it can tell researchers whether a well is plugged by sand. Prolonged exposure--through touching, eating or inhaling--is potentially lethal, causing burns, bleeding, vomiting and diarrhea, and increasing the risk of cancer.

Alan Cassiano, Flo-Log's chief executive officer, said visual inspections will now be required of all materials delivered to and removed from the South Gate facility. And access to the "radiation room" where cesium and other radioactive substances are stored has been reduced from six people to two--Cassiano and a radiation safety officer. Until the alleged theft, four field engineers also had access to the room, Cassiano said.

In addition, Cassiano said he or the safety officer must now be present when anyone enters the room, and combination locks to the building and the room have been changed. The company is conducting an internal investigation of the incident, including polygraph tests for all workers, he said.

"We would hate to see something like that happen again," Cassiano said. "We're not sure who it was, but we are obviously asking everyone here, going right down the line."

In addition to cesium-137, Flo-Log is authorized to handle americium-beryllium and radium-226, radioactive materials that also are used in oil exploration, Bunn said.

The state Health Services Department is conducting its own investigation. Depending on the outcome, the department will either require additional security measures or refer the matter to the state attorney general's office, which could modify or revoke Flo-Log's license, Bunn said.

The South Gate Police Department is investigating leads and suspects, but would not release details.

This is not the first time Flo-Log, which has been licensed to handle radioactive material since 1983, has had problems.

In a 1990 inspection, the firm was cited for seven violations, including exposing workers to radioactive material and inadequate supervision of employees, Bunn said.

"Their record is not good," Bunn said. "They definitely need to improve their radiation program."

But Cassiano said the recent incident was an unusual event, and he pledged to cooperate with all investigations.

"The main thing, the hazard, is over," he said. "Now our main objective is to find who did (this) and why."

Los Angeles Times Articles