April 30, 2012

RadioActive! Casefiles: The Goiânia Accident (1987)

A little over one year after Chernobyl focused the world's attention on what was then the worst-ever civilian industrial nuclear disaster, the Brazilian city of Goiânia became the scene of another major radiological accident, resulting in several fatalities and widespread contamination. [A definitive 1988 report is available online at IAEA.org. See links and videos at the bottom of this post.]

On September 13, 1987, two men broke into the Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia (IGR), a partially demolished private cancer radiation therapy facility, and carted away a 300kg object in the belief they'd a found a valuable scrap metal item. Roberto dos Santos Alves and Wagner Mota Pereira took the object to Alves' home, about one-half kilometer north of the clinic, and began to dismantle it.

Over the next few days Alves and Pereira cut away at the metal exterior and managed to puncture the casing. Despite the fact both men started to become violently ill with vomiting and diarrhea, they continued their efforts, eventually cracking open the device - inside was a smaller metal canister with a movable "window." When the inner canister's window was pried open, it revealed a mysterious blue glow inside the inner shell. The men scraped away and extracted several small chunks of the glowing blue substance within with a screwdriver to keep as "souvenirs."

On September 18th, Alves sold the object to Devair Alves Ferreira, a nearby scrap dealer. Fascinated by the blue glow, Ferreira invited his family and friends over to see and touch the object. Ferreira's brother Ivo brought some of the powder from the canister home and spread it on his floor; innocently, his 6-year-old daughter Leide played with the powder, rubbed it on her skin, and even ingested a small quantity. Over the next several days, she and others who handled the glowing powder fell ill with vomiting, diarrhea, skin rashes, burns, and blisters.

Now fearing the object was "killing her family," the scrap dealer's wife Gabriela placed it in a plastic bag, boarded a bus, and brought it to the Vigilancia Sanitaria hospital on September 28. One of two doctors who met with Gabriela that day suspected the danger, and placed the bag on a chair in the outer hospital garden, as far away as possible from human contact.

The following morning, a visiting medical physicist with a borrowed radiation detector confirmed the doctor's fears - the hospital now was massively contaminated with radiation. The physicist, identified only as "W.P." in official reports, initially encountered a great deal of resistance alerting authorities to the severity of the emergency. By the end of the following day, W.P. convinced the Secretary for Health of Goias State and the Director of the Department of Nuclear Installations in CNEN to begin a massive search and cleanup operation in the area.

What Alves and Pereira unknowingly brought home from the abandoned clinic was a lead-shielded cancer therapy device containing a lethally radioactive cesium137 chloride (salt) core. All told, 130,000 people were tested for radiation at area hospitals, about 250 were found to be contaminated, and 20 required treatment for radiation sickness. Several houses within the neighborhood had to be demolished, and the rubble buried in a remote waste site. The cleanup effort also was hampered not only by the length of time that passed since the core was exposed and handled, but also by the fact the radioactive powder was water-soluble.

Four deaths are attributed to direct exposure to the cesium core: Leide and Gabriela Ferreira, and two of Devair Ferreira's scrapyard employees succumbed to radiation poisoning about a month after receiving radiation doses of 4.5 to 6.0 Gy (500 to 600 REM). Leide was buried in a lead coffin surrounded by concrete in a Goiânia cemetery, where crowds protested her burial, fearing their relatives' graves would be contaminated. Remarkably, Devair Ferreira survived his massive 7.0 Gy exposure.

The accident - rated 5 on the International Nuclear Event Scale [INES] - spread radioactive contamination throughout the Goiânia districts of Aeroporto, Central, and Ferroviários. To this date an estimated 7 of the device's nominal 50 TBq (terabecquerels) of radioactivity remain unaccounted for.

Image at top from the IAEA 1988 report on the Goiânia Accident. Lower image, by Alexander Sassaki/SIPA Press appears in "Radiation Accident Grips Goiania," by Leslie Roberts, Science, 1987 (see link below). *Featuring very effective use of Kraftwerk's "Radioactivity" as the backing track when one of the scrapyard employees discovers the cesium's blue glow in a dark storeroom, recalling the famous story of when the Curies found their radium-purifying lab apparatus aglow at night

April 28, 2012

Atomic Age II Fukushima Symposium, May 5th, 2012

RadioActive! readers near Chicago: the University of Chicago, the birthplace of the first controlled nuclear chain reaction, hosts Atomic Age Symposium II - Fukushima, this Saturday, May 5th.
[K]eynote speakers are Hiroaki Koide of the Kyoto University Reactor Research Institute, who has been speaking out against nuclear power for over 40 years; and Ruiko Muto, an anti-nuclear activist based in Fukushima and a member of a citizens’ group, Hairo [Reactor Decommission] Action Fukushima. Robert Rosner, Astronomy & Astrophysics & Physics, University of Chicago (former Director of the Argonne National Laboratory) will share his stance on nuclear energy via a videotaped message. Ruiko Muto’s speech will be followed by Bobbie Paul, Executive Director of Georgia WAND—Women’s Action for New Directions, Jeffrey Patterson (MD, Board Member and Past President of Physicians for Social Responsibility), and Dean Wilkie, a retired nuclear plant operator and manager who, with Nancy Foust, an online media expert, has collaborated on the Simply Info website to provide detailed information about Fukushima.
This will be an all-day symposium investigating the multiple dimensions of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster through discussion by experts from Japan and the US, Saturday, May 5, 2012: 8:45am–6:00pm. This event is free and open to the public. Continental breakfast and lunch will be provided. For full information and details, visit http://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/atomicage/aboutsymposium/ or call 773-702-8647.

April 27, 2012

Jellyfish-Like Creatures Cause Shutdown of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant

An influx of "thumb-sized" creatures in cooling sea water proved too much for a California nuclear power plant this week, according to NDTV:
The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, in San Luis, California, shut down its Unit 2 reactor after sea salp, a planktonic jellyfish-like creature clogged the screens of the plant’s coolant water intake. The influx of the gelatinous animals was discovered Wednesday. Initially, plant operators reduced its functional reactor to 25% capacity. Unit 1 had a scheduled refueling earlier in the week, and had been shut down.
In smaller quantities away from industrial activity, Salps have been known to have a beneficial effect on seawater by consuming bacteria. The San Luis coastal salp invasion may be just a periodic bloom.

Construction Begins on New Chernobyl Containment

[5/11/12 UPDATE: the National Radio Company of Ukraine announces that the Chernobyl shelter will be dismantled before 2022 (via NCRU)]

On the 26th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, construction began on the long-awaited secondary containment shelter - or "Ukritye" - that will surround the site's crumbling concrete "sarcophagus." From AFP on YouTube:

The Shelter Implementation Plan (SIP) proposed over a decade ago by a multinational consortium languished for years due to a lack of funding; recent major donations have prompted ground-breaking on the project that eventually will cost nearly $1B. From Neue Deutsche Welle:
Construction on the so-called New Safe Confinement is slated to finish in 2015 and the new shelter will allow experts to dismantle the reactor and clean up the radioactive waste still present. On April 26, 1986, an explosion at the nuclear reactor spewed radiation that winds carried over much of the northern hemisphere with Belarus, Ukraine and Russia bearing the brunt of the fallout. A so-called "sarcophagus" was built over the reactor, however, it has leaked radiation in recent years. Donors pledged 740 million euros ($980 million) to build the new, permanent containment barrier and a nuclear fuel waste facility.
A new web resource on the Chernobyl disaster that purports to "[Publish] independent scientifically validated information about the consequences of Chernobyl disaster" can be found at the European Center of Technological Safety (TESEC):
This accident has been used, and is still used, as one of the key element of public mistrust "vis a vis" both the political and the scientific communities. The scale of the material losses and the financial cost of mitigating the consequences of the Chernobyl accident provide compelling evidence of the extremely high price of errors and shortcomings when ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants and of the need for strict compliance with international safety requirements during their design, construction and operation. The accident has convincingly demonstrated that the cost of ensuring the safety of nuclear facilities is significantly lower than that of dealing with accident consequences. Large-scale man-made accidents cause great social and economic damage to countries located in their area of influence. In the spirit of UN Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) it has been decided to develop and deploy a international scientific network for dissemination and publishing in web site scientifically validated information about the consequences of Chernobyl disaster. The Aarhus Convention was negotiated by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe as part of its pan-European environmental legal framework. It is generally intended to lift the veil of environmental secrecy and strengthen citizens' environmental rights. The Aarhus Convention aims to ensure that the public has access to this type of information and to prevent Governments from covering up environmental disasters. Web site is address to various categories of targets (public of different levels of education, decision-makers, scientists, associations, governmental authorities and concerned international organizations, etc.).