Terrorists’ deployment of a radiological exposure device, which in its crudest form would be nothing more than an unshielded radiological source, if hidden and left in a mass public venue, over time would expose anyone in proximity to harmful – and potentially lethal – radiation poisoning.
Used commonly in a host of medical and industrial applications, radiological sources emit potentially dangerous levels of radiation. It’s a danger graphically illustrated over the years in a long series of accidents wherein unwary individuals accidently handled discarded radiological sources, which resulted in serious injuries and deaths.
Perhaps the single most well known incident occurred in Goiania, Brazil, in 1987. Thieves stole a radiotheraphy machine from an abandoned medical clinic, broke it open and removed the highly radioactive cesium-137 source inside. After removing the radioactive source from its lead casing, they took the capsule with the fluorescent blue cesium powder home with them. Both men suffered severe radiation burns but did not immediately associate the cesium with the burns.
They then showed the cesium powder to friends and relatives, who continued to handle the material without safeguards, even painting the fluorescent powder on their clothing and using it as glow in the dark makeup. Over the following days, those who handled the powder fell ill with a variety of symptoms, including vomiting, diarrhea and faintness – the symptoms of radiation sickness.
Once authorities became aware of the incident, radiation had spread as far as 100 kilometers from Goiania. Decontamination required the destruction of entire homes, the removal of topsoil and the pouring of concrete over contaminated earth. In the end, 112,800 people required screening for radiation exposure, 239 had been irradiated, 49 were hospitalized – 21 requiring intensive care – and four died. One victim’s corpse was so radioactive it had to be buried in a lead shielded casket.
While one of the most well-known cases of accidental exposure to stolen or lost radiological sources, the Goiania incident is hardly the only one. In 2010, a cargo container that arrived in the port of Genoa, Italy, from Saudi Arabia emitted so much deadly radiation it had to be moved to a safe area at the port and quarantined. It took authorities almost a year to devise a plan to use a robot to open the container, where they discovered a discarded cobalt-60 source in a load of scrap metal. The cobalt-60 then had to be placed in a lead container and transported to a disposal site. Italian emergency response team members determined that the cobalt-60 source was so hot it would have killed anyone who handled it.
In 1989, a small capsule of cesium-137 was found inside the concrete wall of an apartment building in Kramatorsk, Ukraine. The source was most likely part of a level meter that had become mixed in with scrap metal and somehow embedded in the concrete used to construct the building.
Over the nine years the source was in the wall, six building residents died from leukemia and 17 had received varying doses of radiation. It was detected only after residents requested that radiation levels be measured in the apartment.
Also in 2010, scrap dealers who purchased laboratory equipment from the University of Delhi that contained a cobalt-60 source were inadvertently exposed to high levels of radiation when they broke open the equipment and extracted the source. One scrap dealer ultimately died from radiation sickness.
Accidental exposures to radiation are troubling enough, but we have long since crossed the threshold into the intentional use of radiological sources to kill.
Read the complete report here.