RadOnc News

A Survey of Historical Radiation Accidents

A potpourri of lesser known radiation incidents provide a worthwhile reminder of the power of radiation.

Radiation safety, an important part of our professional lives as radiation workers, is designed to protect us from accidental harm. While rare, radiation accidents do occur. Many people have familiarity with the most famous radiation accidents, such as Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. The following are more obscure radiation accidents and incidents that serve as a worthwhile reminder of the power of radiation and the importance of radiation safety.

Anatoli Bugorski and the Proton Beam

Anatoli Bugorski stuck his head in the proton beam channel to diagnose a particle accelerator malfunction in 1978. What he did not realize was that the beam was on. The experimenters using the accelerator before him had turned off the “beam on” warning lights and had not turned them back on. He reported seeing a light “brighter than 1,000 suns,” though he felt no pain. A hole was burned through his brain tissue where the focused proton beam penetrated, the left side of his face was paralyzed, and he developed tinnitus in his left ear. Anatoli went on to receive his PhD and has outlived the particle accelerator that maimed him.

Woodcutters Find Sr-90 Capsules

In 2001, three woodcutters were hospitalized with radiation sickness after being discovered with Sr-90 capsules in the nation of Georgia. The capsules were radiothermal heat generators abandoned from the Soviet era. The woodcutters developed radiation sickness after using them as a heat source at their camp.

Truck Carrying Radioactive Waste Stolen

In 2013, a truck was stolen from a gas station in Mexico where the truck driver and attendant apparently left it unattended against protocol. Unfortunately, this truck contained radioactive waste. This led to a minor panic, as nobody knew what would happen to the contents of the truck. Luckily the truck was found in a farm town, where the cobalt’s protective iron casing was found to be disturbed but unbroken. Officials examined the family that found the stolen vehicle, and luckily everyone was in good health. It is believed that the men who stole the truck had no idea of its contents.

A Radioactive Road

Thousands of people use the 13-mile dirt road in the Kwale district of Kenya as their main source of income. This road was built some years ago, then repaired using materials from a nearby hill, rather than using materials from a quarry that is 20 kilometers away. It was discovered in 1999 that this nearby hill contains different radioactive isotopes, meaning a large portion of the road was radioactive, creating a risk for the thousands in the community that use the road. Even more concerning, some people have used materials from the hill in their homes and to help grow crops.

To learn more, visit this article: Traveling the Radioactive Road

Boy Scout Attempts to Build Backyard Breeder Reactor

David Hahn, a 17 year-old boy scout, was discovered attempting to build a breeder reactor in his mom’s shed in 1994. Someone thought he was trying to steal tires and called the police. When they arrived, David informed them that he had radioactive materials in his car. The ensuing investigation led to a superfund clean-up of his shed lab.

To learn more, visit this article: The Radioactive Boy Scout

Blue Glowing Rock Distributed

In 1987, Cesium-137 was removed from an abandoned teletherapy unit in Brazil by two criminals who sold the device to a junkyard. The workers at the junkyard then dismantled the machine, releasing the cesium that was inside. Fascinated by the glowing blue piece, they broke up the rock and distributed pieces to friends, family, and neighbors. Four people went on to die from their exposure, many were hospitalized, and up to 100,000 required monitoring. Evidence of this contamination was found up to 100 miles away from the initial site.

To learn more, visit this article: Hundreds are Accidentally Poisoned in Brazil

Radioactive Buildings in Taiwan

In 1992 a father in Taiwan was showing his son how a radiation monitor works when he discovered a dangerously high reading coming from the walls in his apartment. The Atomic Energy Council (AEC) conducted tests and found that the building was emitting hazardous levels of radiation. It turned out that the steel bars were impregnated with cobalt-60.

Loius Slotin and the Demon Core

In May of 1946, Louis Slotin was going to do what the physicists of Los Alamos’ secret laboratory called “tickling the dragon’s tail.” He was going to bring the exposed core of a nuclear weapon as close to the point of criticality as possible. It was supposedly a simple procedure: lower half a shell of beryllium over the exposed core, but stop before it’s seated on the core. Neutrons would reflect back and a small nuclear chain reaction would begin. Slotin planned to wedge a screwdriver between the two components to keep them apart, but the screwdriver slipped. Luckily for every other person in the room, Slotin reacted quickly and flipped off the tamper piece and the reaction stopped. Days after the incident, Slotin’s white-blood cell count dropped, his health continued failing dramatically. He died nine later. The book The Accident, written by Dexter Masters, is based on this incident.

Left: Louis Slotin. Right: The Core he was Working with.


Church Rock Uranium Spill

In Church Rock, New Mexico in 1979, a dam holding 1,100 tons of milling waste and 94 million gallons of water burst. The water was radioactive due to the nearby uranium mining. Despite the fact that it was the single largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history, coming just weeks after the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania, most people have never heard of it. The dam was built on geologically unsound land and a resident of the area recalls walking by the dam prior to the burst and seeing cracks large enough for his foot to fit into.


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