Researchers only had 90 minutes to grab the equipment and materials necessary for their research.
Researchers only had 90 minutes to grab the equipment and materials necessary for their research. gevende/Getty Images

On the morning of Friday, May 3, Dr. Dirk Keene woke up in Atlanta to an automated alert message from the University of Washington. A radiation leak had been detected at the Harborview Research & Training (R&T) building in Seattle, the same building where he researches neurological diseases and trauma. At the time he didn’t think much of it. He’d seen plenty of these alerts before for chemical spills and laboratory accidents and they never seemed to amount to much; maybe a short evacuation or a day of cleanup, but never more than a minor inconvenience.

It wasn’t until he returned home to Seattle that it became clear this was no ordinary accident.

The roughly 200 research employees in the R&T building were told not to come to work that day. Those who showed up anyway were confronted by a building under complete lockdown and witnessed officials from over half a dozen state and federal agencies working to contain the radiation leak.

The Leak

Late on May 2, contractors for the Department of Energy (DOE) were removing an irradiator, a medical machine used to sterilize blood, when they accidentally cut into the radioactive cesium capsule while preparing the machine for shipping on the loading dock. Cesium powder is highly radioactive and can cause radiation burns and increase cancer risk. None of the 13 people present for the leak showed signs of cesium exposure, UW spokesperson Susan Gregg told The Stranger.

Once health workers were satisfied there was no greater threat to public safety, officials turned their attention to the massive seven-story building in front of them. How much airborne cesium powder had made its way into the R&T building? Nobody knew at the time that the DOE would still be trying to answer that question two months later.

“I tend to be rather optimistic, so I kept thinking, ‘Oh, it'll take a week or so,’” Keene said. “Now I’m at the point where I think we’re looking at least to Labor Day and maybe even a little beyond that.”

A Labor Day reopening would constitute a four-month closure, which is unprecedented for the university. The Washington Department of Health (DOH) has the ultimate authority to release the building and will not do so until Chase Environmental, a DOE contractor running the cleanup effort, has checked the entire building for radiation and removed every known trace of cesium contamination.

Will Researchers Still Get Paid?

In the early days of the closure, Dr. Nicole Gibran, the associate dean for research and graduate education, other UW officials, and representatives from the DOE and DOH held biweekly meetings with the 35 principal investigators (PIs). Two researchers told The Stranger the magnitude of the closure fully sunk in when Gibran asked the group: “What do you need to get through the next six weeks?”

After confirming that there weren't life-threatening issues and public health safety concerns, the immediate switch was "how do we get back to functionality?” Gibran said. “What do we do about our employees? How do we pay employees who are dependent on their salary?”

Gibran, both a UW Medicine administrator and an active researcher in the R&T building, understands the needs and concerns of these PIs. But since the leak, her focus hasn't been on her own research (burn and trauma care) but on getting these researchers back to work and juggling the needs of about 200 employees.

For the first three weeks of the closure, employees were concerned that they wouldn’t get paid or that they would have to use up all their paid time off because they weren't working. A central emergency fund created by UW President Ana Mari Cauce’s Declaration of Extraordinary Circumstances ensured salaried workers would be paid throughout the closure.

It took UW Human Resources several more weeks to decide how to handle hourly workers. The current policy is if they are working in their normal scientific capacity, then they’ll continue to be paid by the grant money funding the research. But if they are working on tasks related to the radiation leak, such as moving equipment or setting up new labs, then they’ll be paid directly from UW’s central fund. This ensures the grant money, most of which is publicly funded, is actually used for the research as intended.

From the beginning, the most resounding question Gibran and Dr. John Slattery, vice dean of research and graduate education, had heard was "when can we get back to work?"

Research at Risk

Many of the researchers in the R&T building are working on treatments for life-threatening diseases, so a six-week shutdown can mean lives lost and ailments gone untreated.

Part of Keene’s work focuses on Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases that can only be understood by looking inside brain tissue.

“We weren’t able to do any of the brain examinations," Keene said. Keene's research was sidelined because while researchers could collect the brains from the R&T "we couldn’t really do anything beyond that.”

For researchers working primarily with animals, a few key early decisions may have saved months of research from being corrupted by the closure. UW spokespeople told The Stranger that there was no radiation detected in the vivarium, a separate basement space that houses research animal subjects. Gibran was in contact with veterinarian staff on the morning of the leak to make sure they would receive care throughout the closure. All the animals have now been moved to the main UW campus Animal Research and Care Facility.

For Dr. Lorenzo Giacani, a stroke of luck may have helped shield him from some of the worst consequences of a mid-experiment disaster. He studies syphilis and is funded by the NIH to develop a vaccine to prevent the disease, especially transmission from mother to child.

Giacani uses rabbits in his research by inoculating them with a certain trial vaccine and then challenging them with the syphilis pathogen to see how they react. The radiation leak occurred in between trials so, according to him, his research was completely unaffected by it. Had he not had access to the animals at all during the closure, it’s possible that the results would have been skewed or major checkpoints could have been missed.

“We were fortunate that the big vaccine trial that we were trying to do had finished a few days earlier," Giacani said.

Other researchers are still evaluating whether the closure could have negatively impacted ongoing experiments. Having to completely redo an experiment would be the worst possible outcome and could mean a year or more of lost work.

Finding Space for 35 Labs

The first step to getting back to work was finding somewhere to put 200 displaced employees. Dozens of PIs across UW’s sprawling campus volunteered to share their lab space with displaced researchers. Gibran has tried to match R&T researchers with other PIs doing similar work to ensure they’ll have the necessary equipment.

But these shared lab spaces still needed equipment and biological samples that was trapped inside the R&T building. Gibran worked with the DOE and cleanup crews to schedule escorted trips inside the building so researchers could grab what they needed to get started.

Employees had only 90 minutes. Keene compared it to a dash n’ grab shopping game show, except instead of grabbing plasma TVs, they were grabbing brain tissue and centrifuges. Everything they wanted to take was scanned for radiation twice.

According to Gibran, researchers will continue these brief trips into the building into early July but will stop for the rest of the month to allow the remediation team to continue cleaning the building.

“With each set of moves I think people are a little bit more comfortable that they have the resources that will allow them—probably not to be fully functional—but at least get back to work,” Gibran said.

The 35 PIs are now housed in the nearby 9th and Jefferson Building, the South Lake Union Medical Campus, the UW Medical Center, and two labs, including Keene’s, are setting up in the Veteran’s Affairs building. Some of Keene’s research involves military neurotrauma, so he already had several close contacts at the VA.

“People have reached out and offered their lab space," Keene said, "offered to help with the move, offered to provide the equipment we might need. It’s been devastating, you know, we’ve been essentially shut down for more than a month now, but we’re almost back up and running.”

Getting 35 separate labs back to at least partial functionality has been a Herculean task that could not have happened without the generosity of the UW research community, quick access to emergency funds, and the quick decision-making of a few key research leaders.

“Nicole Gibran is dedicating her entire time to rescuing the building and to enable us to resume work,” Giacani said. “This woman is from now on my hero.”