RSO works to ensure safety of students

By Michael McVey

Despite a significant amount of radioactive material at NIU, the university is in no immediate danger of becoming another Three Mile Island or Chernobyl.

At least not if Deborah Rutland has her way. She heads the NIU Radiation Safety Office (RSO), which has the responsibility of ensuring the safety of students and instructors who work with radioactive materials and radiation-producing equipment.

Some departments, like biology, physics, and chemistry, study radioactive materials and are subject to the training programs and safety regulations set by the RSO, Rutland said.

Other departments, like geology, use X-ray equipment and also must receive training and comply with safety procedures. “The health center has several X-ray units as well,” Rutland added.

Rutland said safety procedures include wearing protective equipment and personal dosimeters, shielding radioactive sources and informing people when radioactivity is present.

The dosimeters consist of an ID badge and a ring, Rutland said. “If a worker’s dosimeter gives high readings, we will check with the worker, find out what they’ve been doing and say, ‘Look, we don’t want you getting this much exposure. Let’s figure out how you can do this more safely.'”

Rutland said the RSO is commissioned by the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety (IDNS), which requires the RSO in order for NIU to be allowed to handle radioactive materials. “Each institution that uses radioactive forces must have a radiation safety program in order to have a license to use radioactive material or radiation sources,” she said.

The safety program includes a series of emergency procedures that must be followed in the event of an accident. Although Rutland said no accidents involving radiation have occurred recently, the RSO is required by the IDNS to emphasize these procedures in training anyone who will handle radiation sources.

Rutland said the procedures are based on a priority system. The top priority is the safety of people in the area of the accident.

The second priority is containment of the spill or accident to the smallest area possible.

The third priority is the protection of the building from damage.

The fourth and final priority is informing the RSO as soon as possible that the accident has occurred.

The emphasis on safety and prevention has been successful in preventing emergency situations, Rutland said. “We run a pretty tight ship around here.”

Robin Rogers, associate professor of chemistry, said the study of the three-dimensional structure of crystalline molecules requires X-Ray equipment.

Rogers said he also is involved in a research project to find a method to extract hazardous metallic ions from waste solutions. To evaluate the success of the extraction device, it is necessary to track the metallic ions as they move from the solution to the extraction mechanism, he said.

Since radiation sources are involved in such study and research, Rutland said, the RSO has to ensure the safe handling of the materials and equipment.

“No one at NIU is exposed to more than one hundredth of the IDNS exposure limits,” she said.