Radioactive source horror stories

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September 1987

Brazil - one of the worst radiation accidents in history

A young scrap metal scavenger in GoiČnia, the capital of Goiás State in the central Brazilian plateau, took a radiation therapy machine from a deserted clinic and sold it to a junk dealer, who wanted the stainless steel. Then the junk dealer noticed a blue glow from a capsule. Someone dug out the powdery material--it was roughly three ounces of cesium 137--with a screwdriver. Others daubed it on their skin as though it were carnival glitter. A 6-year-old girl played with the material, which coated her hands with cesium dust, as she ate.

By the time Goiás authorities brought the situation under control several weeks later, 249 people were found to be contaminated, and the 10 most serious patients were transported to Rio de Janeiro for treatment. The 6-year-old girl was severely ill for a month--dead patches of skin on her hands, hair falling out, capillaries rupturing, infections raging in her lungs and kidneys--before she died.

Four of the severely exposed people died from radiation injuries. The emergency response and clean-up effort of houses, buildings, and land lasted six months. All told, more than 100,000 people were monitored for contamination. The teletherapy machine containing the cesium-137 source had been left behind after a private radiotherapy institute moved to new premises. It was left unsecured for about two years before being removed by the scavenger.

[Sources: Abel J. González (Director, IAEA Division of Radiation and Waste Safety), "Strengthening the Safety of Radiation Sources & the Security of Radioactive Materials: Timely Action", (Sidebar: "IAEA reports on radiological accidents"), IAEA Bulletin, v41 n3, 1999;
Richard Stone (European news editor for Science), "The Hunt for Hot Stuff", Smithsonian v33 n12, March 2003, p. 58]

December 2001

XSSRs - incredibly radioactive radiothermal generators abandoned in the remote locations where they were used to power radio transmissions

On a frigid afternoon, three men gathering wood near the Inguri River in northern Georgia encountered a pair of canisters the size of paint pails. The objects, oddly hot to the touch, had melted surrounding snow. The men settled down for the night by the canisters, as though by a fire. They could not have known that their makeshift heaters were packed with strontium 90, an emitter of beta and gamma radiation.

Within hours they felt nauseated, grew dizzy and started vomiting. Soon their skin started to peel-- radiation burn. A stream of beta particles, or electrons, from the strontium had destroyed their skin, while x rays and gamma rays had blasted the underlying tissue. Their wounds festered. Back in Tbilisi, physicians faxed an urgent plea to the IAEA headquarters in Vienna for help securing the devices. "My shock was so great when I learned how radioactive these sources are," says Abel Julio González, director of radiation and waste safety at the IAEA. The canisters found in Georgia were highly radioactive, on the order of 40,000 curies apiece--about 40 times the output of a radiation therapy machine.

González and colleagues, who immediately realized that the canisters held the makings of a potent dirty bomb, were alarmed by what they later learned about the Soviet-era devices, which powered electrical generators in remote locales and have been largely unknown to Western nuclear authorities until recently In the generators, high-energy beta particles shed by the strontium 90 slammed into the walls of a titanium-based ceramic receptacle; some energy was shed as X rays and some as heat, warming the ceramic to around 900 degrees Fahrenheit. A transformer converted the heat to electricity.

The IAEA says it has captured all six of the strontium 90 generators that it believes were in Georgia, which the Soviets used to power radio transmissions.

But the canisters are turning up all around the old USSR. After being prodded by the IAEA, Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy gradually divulged that in Soviet times a factory in Estonia churned out at least 900 of the generators, including some models that are five times more radioactive than the units recovered in Georgia. No more than a couple dozen of the generators have been accounted for, says González, adding that the IAEA's efforts to track down the missing generators are hampered by a legacy of lost records and even theft. Because the generators once also provided electricity for lighthouses along the Arctic coast, from the Baltic to the Bering Strait, Russia is working with the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority to salvage radiothermal generators in the Murmansk region and ship them to a Russian nuclear site for storage.

[Source: Richard Stone (European news editor for Science), "The Hunt for Hot Stuff", Smithsonian v33 n12, March 2003, p. 58]

April 1997

XSSR - Georgia Army base found to be home of scores of abandoned radioactive sources

During the Cold War, the Lilo Training Center, on the outskirts of Tbilisi, prepared troops for the aftermath of a nuclear strike. Soldiers there conducted undisclosed exercises and tests in a mock post-apocalyptic environment. Soon after Georgia's independence, Russia transferred the barracks to the Georgian Army; which used it as a training camp for border guards. Then, beginning in April 1997, several recruits began to suffer intermittent nausea, vomiting and weakness. Lesions the size of silver dollars appeared on their skin. Not until a 20year-old soldier lost 30 pounds over several months, while at the same time his fingers began shriveling, did physicians diagnose radiation syndrome.

Searching Lilo for the radioactive culprits, scientists working with the Georgian Army turned up scores of them. Among them were a dozen teakettle-size containers of cesium 137, an emitter of gamma radiation, and a capsule of concentrated cesium 137 not much bigger than a Tic Tac, found in a soldier's jacket pocket. Meskhi says the Soviets had used those items to calibrate radiation monitors, but others say they aren't sure about that. In any event, all ii young border guards exposed to the radiation had to undergo painful operations in which large patches of dead skin and flesh were cut away But they all survived. "This is when we first realized we had a serious problem with orphan [radiation] sources," says Zurab Tavartkiladze, first deputy minister of Georgia's Environment Ministry.

[Source: Richard Stone (European news editor for Science), "The Hunt for Hot Stuff", Smithsonian v33 n12, March 2003, p. 58]

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Horror story news

July 27, 2012

* [radiation-Peru] Minor amputation after radiography incident, World Nuclear Assn, WNN Daily
A Peruvian radiographer has lost part of a finger after working with an unshielded iridium-192 source. The event is classified a 'serious incident' at Level 3 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

April 12, 2010

India - A scrap metal dealer and his employees have been hospitalized after they were exposed to radiation from Cobalt-60 sources

There are about 200 small scap shops in the Mayapuri area in West Delhi, India. The owner of one of the shops fell unconscious on April 3. Indian press reports say that four or five of his employees have also been hospitalized. When doctors recognized that he was likely suffering radiation injuries, they contacted the government. On April 8, government radiation technicians and scientists surveyed the shop and found high radiation levels. Several discrete sources were identified in the shop, and gamma spectrometry revealed that the isotope they were dealing with was cobalt-60, which is commonly used as a source for medical and industrial devices.

It is not yet known where the radioactive sources came from. The polished source capsules were reportedly removed from their lead shielded containers by the scrap dealer. At least two of the stricken men had been directly handling the sources, such as for cleaning them. The dose rates emanating from the sources was high enough that authorities have said that others who had spent time nearby may require hospitalization, too.

One newspaper reported that the dealer had gotton some scrap recently from a medical facility, but it was not known whether the facility was local or even from within India.

Several newspapers reported that folks in the area are panic-stricken, with rumors about such things as bad smells and mysterious shining objects being told.

nuclear.com's heart goes out to these poor souls and their families. Your humble editor has an artsy wall-mounted area radiation monitor (with GM tube detector) in the office, and I have one of those nifty 10-year-battery operated chirpers (scintillation detector) on my keyring.

October 21, 2004

* Florida - radioactive sources put under cushion of boss' chair; criminal investigation (Naples)

August 16, 2004

* California - moisture density gauge bounced out of truck, found and moved by someone, reported by yet another [Carlsbad CA]

February 19, 2004

* Johnston Atoll - 8 Ci tritium exit sign broken, was thought to be battery-powered (Air Force)

October 14, 2003

Montana oil rig workers exposed to unshielded well-logging source; Texas firm firmed $90,000

NRC announced a proposed civil penalty of $90,000 against Schlumberger Technology Corporation of Sugar Land, Texas. The fine is related to a May 21, 2002 incident involving the loss of control of a well-logging source containing approximately 1.3 curies of Cesium-137 on an oil rig near Havre, Montana. Thirty-one oilfield workers were identified as being exposed to the source, including thirteen who received doses estimated to be in excess of NRC's 0.1 rem annual limit for individual members of the public. The highest estimated exposure was 0.4 rem, which is less than 10 percent of the annual allowable dose for radiation workers. In a letter to company announcing the proposed fine, NRC regional administrator Bruce Mallett said "While none of the oilfield workers received a radiation exposure that is considered harmful, ... the NRC takes seriously any incident that results in members of the public being unnecessarily exposed to radioactive material."

The company's well-logging crew apparently left the rig without performing required radiation survey intended to verify that the source had been fully retracted into its shield. Two of the workers signed paperwork indicating that required surveys had been performed. NRC considered prohibiting these two from further licensed activities, but decided to issue individual notices of violation to them, too. One was an engineer-in-training. He told NRC that he was told by another worker that he didn't have to perform a survey, and then he felt pressured to sign off on the form. The other was the lowest-paid member of the crew, and told NRC he signed under the assumption that the engineers had performed survey.
[Ref: Notices of Violation related to NRC Inspection Report No. 030-06388/02-001]

September 27, 2003

Ohio scrapyard not owed compensation from government which sold him, without disclosure, radioactive scrap metal, sez District Court

If he had known that the 2,200 pounds of scrap metal he bought from Defense Dept in 1994 contained radioactive magnesium from a Minuteman nuclear missile, he would have done things differently. Now, he says his 27-acre plot has no chance of being sold. The government did spend $80,000 to find and clean up contamination on the land, but they didn't get it all. The government argued that what little contamination is left doesn't represent much of a health threat, and the land isn't even worth the amount that's already been spent on cleanup. The landowner says he'll appeal yesterday's court ruling.

[Ref: Mansfield (Ohio) News Journal, "Court downs man's radioactive lawsuit", September 27, 2003]

August 21, 2003

*Washington - troxler gauge run over by car, dragged 90-feet, sources stayed intact

August 12, 2003

Michigan - radiography source in truck left for servicing

NRC has proposed that a fine of $6,000 be assessed against a radiography licensee, Mid American Inspection Services, Inc., of Gaylord, Michigan. One of the company's trucks was left at a car dealer for service, and a 35-curie Ir-192 source was left in the truck's locked darkroom. The key to the darkroom was on the ring left with the dealer. The paperwork required by DOT to accompany the source when being transported were, however, removed from the truck. The truck was test driven by dealer personnel who had no idea that the source was present. If the truck had been involved in an accident, emegency responders would not have had the benefit of the DOT paperwork. [Ref: James L. Caldwell (NRC Region III), "Notice Of Violation And Proposed Imposition Of Civil Penalty - $6000", letter EA-03-100, August 12, 2003 (ACN ML032240727)]

August 5, 2003

* Louisiana - 20-700 rem hand exposure from Iridium wafer that should have stayed in Hot Cell; worker thought it was contamination on floor and tried to wipe it up by hand

July 23, 2003

What looked like a horror story turns into yet another incredible tale about the health benefits of chronic exposure to radiation

One of the poster papers at this week's annual meeting of the Health Physics Society may prompt a lot more public health wonks to take the hormesis theory much more seriously. Here's the abstract from an earlier presentation on the research by the same team of Taiwanese researchers: There was an incredible radiological incident in Taiwan. About 1700 apartments were contaminated with Cobalt-60, and about 10,000 residents in the contaminated apartments had received quite amount of gamma radiation dose averaged in about 0.34 Sv, highest up 7 Sv until 2000. Based on the RERF report and ICRP publication, such amount of radiation could induce the residents to have many times of excess spontaneous leukemia and some excess solid cancer deaths, actually no excess leukemia and solid cancer deaths were observed, on the contrary, the overall spontaneous cancer deaths of the residents were sharply reduced to only 3.6 % of the general population. So that the radiation received continuously or chronically (nomenclature hereafter as chronic radiation) in the Co-60 contaminated apartments is always hormetic and could effectively immune from cancers. It is different from the health effects of radiation received instantaneously or acutely (nomenclature hereafter as acute radiation) in the nuclear explosion or accident that could cause higher cancer mortality, cause injure syndrome, and even cause death in higher doses. As chronic radiation is very much similar to the radiation received in the peaceful use of nuclear energy and medical use of radiation, chronic radiation should never be afraid by public but should be earnestly and medically employed as immunity from cancers, and it might also immune from hereditary diseases. The conventionally policies, standards and measures for radiation protection should be managed separately for benefiting not only the peaceful use of nuclear energy and medical use of radiation, but also for effectively used as immunity from cancers and hereditary diseases. The hormetic health effects of chronic radiation might also occur in other substances, such as toxic chemicals and microorganisms, it might conclude that any toxic substances received in low dose rate is always beneficial to humanity even in quite amount dose.

Source: Y.C. Luan (Nuclear Science & Technology Association, Taipei, Taiwan), M.C. Shieh, S.T. Chen, W.K. Wang, K.L.Soong, C.M. Tsai, W.L. Chen, T.S. Chou, S.H. Mong, J.T. Wu, C. P. Sun, "The Hormetic Health Effects of Radiation Observed in the Incident of Co-60 Contaminated Apartments in Taiwan", presentation at BELLE conference on Non-linear Dose-Response Relationships in Biology, Toxicology and Medicine, June 11-13, 2002 [online abstract.

I don't know of an online source for the full paper, or whether it has been submitted to any journal [update: See paper -- Chen et al., "Is Chronic Radiation an Effective Prophylaxis Against Cancer?", Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons 9(1):6-10, Spring 2004. Thanks to David Hidson of Health Canada for providing journal citation] . You may request a hard copy of the paper from the lead authors:
W.L. Chen and Y.C. Luan,
Nuclear Sciences and Technology Association,
4th F, W. 245, Sec. 3,
Roosevelt Road,
Taipei, Taiwan, ROC.

2002

Soviet era "Gamma Grain" tractors fitted with Cs-137 sources, abandoned

Early in 2002 the IAEA learned of an experimental Soviet-era agricultural project called Gamma Kolos. (Kolos, a Russian word, refers to grain.) In the program, which started in the 1970s but was abandoned, tractors fitted with containers of cesium 137 (and lead shielding to protect the driver) irradiated wheat seeds before sowing them, in an attempt to induce beneficial mutations in the crops. The radiation was also applied to grain after harvest, to prevent it from germinating. A total of ten of the containers have been recovered in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine; no one knows how many more are unaccounted for.

[Source: Richard Stone (European news editor for Science), "The Hunt for Hot Stuff", Smithsonian v33 n12, March 2003, p. 58]

1999

Turkey - Old teletherapy source warehoused, eventually causing acute radiation syndrome in 10 workers

ISTANBUL, TURKEY -- Old teletherapy sources kept in a firm’s warehouse in Ankara were put in lead containers for shipment to the supplier. They remained there for about five years because of commercial disputes. In December 1998, the firm shipped the containers to another warehouse in Istanbul. But instead of placing the shipment in the deposit yard, workers placed it in a facility next door, where it remained for about nine months. When those premises were sold, the new owners sold the unwanted items, including the containers with the sources inside. The buyer took the containers to an open yard and with another person dismantled them. Ten persons received radiation doses high enough to cause acute radiation syndrome. One of the sources is still missing.

[Source: Abel J. González (Director, IAEA Division of Radiation and Waste Safety), "Strengthening the Safety of Radiation Sources & the Security of Radioactive Materials: Timely Action", (Sidebar: "IAEA reports on radiological accidents"), IAEA Bulletin, v41 n3, 1999]

February 1999

Peru - worker found, and pocketed, radiography source, causing severe radiation burns

YANANGO, PERU -- In February 1999, a radiation accident happened at the construction site of a hydroelectric power station in Yanango, Peru, 300 kilometers east of Lima. The victim was a welder working on the site, who inadvertently picked up an iridium industrial source intended for gammagraphy operations but left uncontrolled. He put it in the back pocket of his trousers. He was initially hospitalized at the Lima Anti-Cancer Centre, suffering from severe radiation burns, and later transferred to the Serious Burns Treatment Centre of the Percy Military Hospital at Clamart (Hauts-de-Seine) in France. He remains there under treatment, and it is expected that he will benefit from a treatment technique used for serious burns which proved effective on Georgian security guards who were victims of a serious radiation accident in 1997.

[Source: Abel J. González (Director, IAEA Division of Radiation and Waste Safety), "Strengthening the Safety of Radiation Sources & the Security of Radioactive Materials: Timely Action", (Sidebar: "IAEA reports on radiological accidents"), IAEA Bulletin, v41 n3, 1999]

1997-1999

Republic of Georgia - wide variety of extremely radioactive sources abandoned after Soviet era

REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA -- Many unsecured radioactive sources have been found in Georgia over recent years. The local authorities first requested international assistance in October 1997, when a group of border frontier guards undergoing training at a centre in Lilo, near Tbilisi, became ill and showed signs of radiation induced skin disease. Eleven servicemen had to be transferred to specialized hospitals in France and Germany. The cause of the exposures was found to be several sources of caesium-137 and cobalt-60 of various activities, abandoned in a former military barracks that used to be under the control of the former Soviet Union. In July 1998 three more abandoned sources with an activity of 50 GBq, 3.3 GBq and 0.17 GBq were found in Matkhoji, an agricultural village about 300 km west of Tbilisi. At the same time, another site of a former Soviet military base close to Kuthaisi was discovered containing an area contaminated with radium-226. Another military base in the city of Poti, close to the Black Sea., was also found to contain two further radioactive sources buried in a sand floor. In October 1998 two other powerful sources were discovered in Khaishi, western Georgia. The sources were part of eight thermo-electric generators placed in the region. These generators used to hold an activity of anything between 740 and 5550 TBq. Since then, four of the generators have been located and are now in safe storage. One was recovered from the bed of the Inguri river which flows through this region in western Georgia. Recently two other discoveries were made: on 21 June 1999, a cobalt-60 source of around 37 GBq was found buried below a road close to the botanical gardens in Tbilisi; on 5 July 1999, two caesium-137 sources were found in the town of Rustavi, close to Tbilisi.

[Source: Abel J. González (Director, IAEA Division of Radiation and Waste Safety), "Strengthening the Safety of Radiation Sources & the Security of Radioactive Materials: Timely Action", (Sidebar: "IAEA reports on radiological accidents"), IAEA Bulletin, v41 n3, 1999]

August 1996

Costa Rica - miscalculation resulted in overexposure of 115 patients, 42 were dead within 9 months

SAN JOSÉ, COSTA RICA -- A serious accident in Costa Rica involved radiotherapy patients. The initiating event occurred at the San Juan de Dios Hospital, in San José, in August 1996, when a cobalt-60 source was replaced. When the new source was calibrated, an error was made in calculating the dose rate. This miscalculation resulted in the administration to patients of significantly higher radiation doses than those prescribed. It appeared that 115 patients being treated for neoplasms by radiotherapy were affected. The error was realized in late September 1996, and treatments were stopped. Subsequent measurements on the machine in question and a review of the patients’ charts confirmed that the exposure rate had been greater than assumed, by about 50% to 60%. By July 1997, within nine months of the accident, 42 of the patients had died. Among the other patients, many of them showed obvious effects of radiation overexposure, though the full consequences of the overexposure were not evident in the months following the accident. However, it is likely that irreversible radiation effects and complications resulting from the accident will appear in patients in the coming years.

[Source: Abel J. González (Director, IAEA Division of Radiation and Waste Safety), "Strengthening the Safety of Radiation Sources & the Security of Radioactive Materials: Timely Action", (Sidebar: "IAEA reports on radiological accidents"), IAEA Bulletin, v41 n3, 1999]

July 1996

Iran - worker found, and pocketed, radiography source

GILAN, IRAN -- On 24 July 1996, a worker at the Combined Cycle Fossil Power Plant, in Gilan was moving insulation materials for the lagging of boilers and pipes in the plant. He noticed a shiny pencil-sized piece of metal on the side of the trench and put it into the loose pocket of his overall on the right side above his chest. The metal object happened to be a 'pigtail' of a radiograph with an iridium-192 source. It led to severe haemopoetic syndrome (bone marrow depression) and an unusually extended local radiation injury. Plastic surgery was successfully performed at the Curie Institute in Paris. The patient has been in satisfactory general condition since then, though his injuries are debilitating.

[Source: Abel J. González (Director, IAEA Division of Radiation and Waste Safety), "Strengthening the Safety of Radiation Sources & the Security of Radioactive Materials: Timely Action", (Sidebar: "IAEA reports on radiological accidents"), IAEA Bulletin, v41 n3, 1999]

October 1994

Estonia - Death and injuries involving unauthorized removal of radwaste container from storage site

TAMMIKU, ESTONIA -- In October 1994, three brothers entered the radioactive waste repository at Tammiku, without authorization and removed a metal container enclosing a radiation source. They were able to open it, and their actions ultimately resulted in the death of one of the brothers and serious injuries to the others. The death was not originally attributed to radiation exposure. However, a physician who examined the injuries of the stepson of the dead person realized the radiological nature of the accident and initiated rescue actions that limited the consequences. Estonian authorities requested international assistance to analyse the accident and to advise on remedial actions.

[Source: Abel J. González (Director, IAEA Division of Radiation and Waste Safety), "Strengthening the Safety of Radiation Sources & the Security of Radioactive Materials: Timely Action", (Sidebar: "IAEA reports on radiological accidents"), IAEA Bulletin, v41 n3, 1999]

November 1992

Vietnam - unwitting exposure at electron accelerator; amputation required

HANOI, VIET NAM -- In November 1992, an accident took place at an electron accelerator facility in Hanoi. An individual entered the irradiation room without the operators’ knowledge and unwittingly exposed his hands to the X-ray beam. His hands were seriously injured and one had to be amputated.

[Source: Abel J. González (Director, IAEA Division of Radiation and Waste Safety), "Strengthening the Safety of Radiation Sources & the Security of Radioactive Materials: Timely Action", (Sidebar: "IAEA reports on radiological accidents"), IAEA Bulletin, v41 n3, 1999]

October 1991

Belarus - Irradiation facility operator gets lethal dose freeing stuck source

NESVIZH, BELARUS -- In October 1991, an accident occurred in an irradiation facility in Nesvizh, about 120 kilometers from Minsk. Agricultural and medical products are sterilized there using a cobalt-60 source. Following a jam in the product transport system, the operator entered the facility to clear the fault, bypassing a number of safety features. At some stage, the source rack became exposed and the operator was irradiated for about one minute. He was taken for medical care, first in Nesvizh and Minsk, and then for specialized treatment in Moscow. Despite intensive medical treatment, he died 113 days later.

[Source: Abel J. González (Director, IAEA Division of Radiation and Waste Safety), "Strengthening the Safety of Radiation Sources & the Security of Radioactive Materials: Timely Action", (Sidebar: "IAEA reports on radiological accidents"), IAEA Bulletin, v41 n3, 1999]

June 1990

Israel - Irradiation facility operator gets lethal dose freeing stuck source

SOREQ, ISRAEL -- In June 1990, an accident occurred in a commercial irradiation facility near Soreq that sterilizes medical products and spices by irradiation from a cobalt-60 source. The accident happened after the source rack became stuck in the irradiation position. The operator misinterpreted two conflicting warning signals, bypassed installed safety systems and contravened procedures so as to enter the irradiation room to free the blockage. Exposed to high levels of radiation, he suffered such severe injuries that he died just over a month later.

[Source: Abel J. González (Director, IAEA Division of Radiation and Waste Safety), "Strengthening the Safety of Radiation Sources & the Security of Radioactive Materials: Timely Action", (Sidebar: "IAEA reports on radiological accidents"), IAEA Bulletin, v41 n3, 1999]

February 1989

El Salvador - Irradiation facility - one dead, two others required legs to be amputated, trying to free stuck source

SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR -- In February 1989, an accident took place at an industrial irradiation facility near San Salvador where medical products are sterilized by irradiation from a cobalt-60 source. The accident happened when the source rack became stuck in the irradiation position. The operator bypassed safety systems and entered the radiation room with two other workers to free the source rack manually. They were exposed to high radiation doses and developed acute radiation syndrome. The legs and feet of two of the three men were so seriously injured that amputation was required. The most-exposed worker died just over six months after the accident.

[Source: Abel J. González (Director, IAEA Division of Radiation and Waste Safety), "Strengthening the Safety of Radiation Sources & the Security of Radioactive Materials: Timely Action", (Sidebar: "IAEA reports on radiological accidents"), IAEA Bulletin, v41 n3, 1999]



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