SCUBA-2 vs Plutonium

SCUBA-2, the next generation submillimetre camera on the JCMT, has suffered another set back. After being installed at the site in April (photos) the team have been busy testing out the kit to prepare it for first light in the very near future.

The problem is that the detector arrays for the device are currently at the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) lab in Boulder, Colorado where a ‘radiation incident’ has taken place. Contamination from plutonium means that no one can enter the lab and the detectors are currently inside.

The incident is described on the NIST website, which says that “a small plutonium spill occurred on June 9”. The sample that is thought to have caused the leak would have contained just one-quarter of a gram of plutonium. This seemingly tiny portion of radioactive material was accidentally spread around by a lab worker who also used a sink to wash his hands while contaminated.

The lab has since been inspected and many surfaces are contaminated including “the floor [and] various tabletops and surfaces, consistent with a spread of material by hands and shoes”. NIST are working with experts and hope to have the situation resolved soon.

Meanwhile, SCUBA-2 has to wait. It has now been two weeks and as soon as the science team can get their hands on the arrays they hope to begin the next phase of work and try to bring to life a device which many have been waiting for with anticipation.

SCUBA-2, and its orbital cousin Herschel, will begin a new era for the science of star formation and submillimetre observing. You’ll hopefully be hearing a lot more about both these instruments right here in the weeks and months to come.


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