6 Terrifying Times People Just Kinda Lost Nuclear Stuff
Mistakes happen in every line of work, from cleaning toilets to handling stuff that could turn a city into a crater. We'd all like to believe that the people in charge of radioactive material are impervious to screwing up, but nope. It turns out they're just as dumb and clumsy as the rest of us. Here are some glowing (literally) examples of workers, scientists, and even government professionals dropping the ball -- a ball made out of isotopes.
Plutonium Was Stolen From A Rental Car In A Hotel Parking Lot Overnight
In March 2017, two lab security experts working (momentarily) for the Department of Energy were assigned to transport some nuclear material from Texas to Idaho to prevent it from falling "into the wrong hands." Instead of hurrying home with their trunk full of toxic groceries, the employees decided to stop for the night at a Marriott in San Antonio, leaving some weapons-grade plutonium in the back seat of their rented Ford Expedition while they sacked out in the hotel overnight.
The following morning, the "experts" made two radical discoveries. The first was that the hotel they'd picked was located in, as the report later put it, "a high-crime neighborhood filled with temp agencies and ranch homes." (Those feared ranch homes, shudder.) The second was that their car's windows had been smashed and someone had made off with their plutonium and some cesium -- a little something that the Nuclear Threat Initiative calls "the most dangerous of all radioactive isotopes."
Probably realizing there was no way to spin this level of utter stupidity into any story they'd ever want in the news, officials did their best to bury the incident and attempt to deal with the ... fallout on the down-low. It was only in July of 2018 that the Center for Public Integrity published a report on the incident, including the fact that there are still no suspects and authorities still have no idea where the radioactive material is.
The good news is that there wasn't enough plutonium to build a bomb. Plus, whoever stole it probably had no idea what it was anyway. Maybe they tried to snort it. Just be on the lookout for glowing junkies if you're ever in San Antonio.
The Museum At The Grand Canyon Had Buckets Of Uranium Just Hanging Out Amongst The Exhibits, Irradiating People For Decades
If you visited the museum at Grand Canyon National Park between 2000 and 2018, you might have unknowingly received a free gift with your park admission purchase: the gift of being irradiated by uranium ore. And as with all freebies, kids got preferential treatment!
Nobody seems to know where the ore came from originally, but buckets of it had reportedly been in the basement of the park headquarters "for decades." They were moved to the museum building sometime in 2000 and happened to land "next to a taxidermy exhibit, where children on tours sometimes stopped for presentations, sitting next to [the] uranium for 30 minutes or more." There were also various interns and between two and five employees working in the building every day; we can only assume they've all sprouted extra heads by now.
Employees realized the ore was emitting radiation in March 2018, when the son of a park employee brought a Geiger counter to the museum and it, we imagine, went apeshit. The park employees promptly took care of the issue by ... moving the buckets (one of which was too full to close) to another part of the building.
In June 2018, a park safety officer learned of the buckets and notified the proper authorities, who came and removed them. That officer estimated that adults could have received up to 400 times the amount of radiation that's considered "safe." For children, just add an extra zero to that number. Nobody has dared to calculate how much radiation the employees might have received. OSHA is currently investigating, so we don't expect to ever hear about this again.
Rolls-Royce's Marine Power Division "Lost" Some Radioactive Tools
In addition to making cars we can't afford, Rolls-Royce has a lucrative side hustle building nuclear subs. And as you might have gathered from the word "nuclear," they use radioactive bits to make those. Bits which they only occasionally misplace.
Radiographers working for the company use screw-sized bits of ytterbium-169 to test the integrity of welding jobs on sub components. Unfortunately, one of the testing samples got knocked loose one day and fell into a partially built submarine. This wouldn't be terribly problematic, except nobody realized it for several hours. Here's some security footage:
Three welders working at the site noticed the piece of ytterbium, so naturally they all passed it around, trying to figure out what the heck it was. They might have gone on playing "Hot Potato, Radioactive Isotope Edition" (patent pending) indefinitely, but a radiographer reporting for the next shift noticed his personal radiation alarm was going off when it really, really shouldn't be.
Thankfully, there was no immediate harm done, but multiple workers were exposed to high levels of gamma radiation, and thus might have to invest in stretchable Hulk-type trousers. Inspectors said the workers' have a "very, very small increased risk of developing cancer" as a result of the mishap. Eh, it's probably OK. Homer seems fine.
Idaho State University Misplaced Enough Plutonium For A Dirty Bomb
Idaho State University keeps some weapons-grade plutonium on campus to use for research, but it turns out they should probably stick to studying potatoes. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the university had 14 samples of plutonium, but can currently only locate 13. It's anyone's guess where the other one got off to. Probably the same place that odd socks, single lost earrings, and mismatched Tupperware lids hang out.
Now, the samples Idaho State was using were only about a gram in size, and were "sealed sources" that were specially packaged to prevent radiation leaks. Trouble is, the missing source started leaking back in 2003, so the university removed it from the others and "intended" to return it to the Idaho National Laboratory. They just never got around to doing so. Maybe it sprouted legs and decided to go on its own?
On the bright side, the quarter-size piece isn't large enough to make a nuclear weapon, but it could be used to make a dirty bomb. The NRC fined Idaho State $8,500 for losing the plut- wait, the fine was only eight and a half large? Man, our judicial infrastructure really does not account for broke PhD students turning into James Bond villains.
Hospitals Have Had Some Laughably Poor Security Around Their Radioactive Equipment
A surprising amount of hospital-type stuff contains radioactive components, and a surprising number of hospital-type people suck at keeping track of it. Following 9/11, the NRC realized they should probably make it harder for people to score isotopes and stuff in medical facilities, so they spent ten years and a cool $96 million beefing up security. In 2012, the Government Accountability Office decided to check how these awesome new security measures were working out. The resulting report reads in part like a Coen Bros. script.
Inspectors found one hospital storing its potentially lethal quantities of cesium-137 behind a door with a combination lock. Unfortunately, the combination to that lock was written on the door. Another hospital had a machine containing 2,000 curies of cesium-13 stored next to an unlocked window overlooking the loading dock, just waiting to be used in some Spider-Man bad guy origin story. At another facility, investigators tried to determine how many employees had "unescorted access" to the site's radioactive materials. They never did get an exact number, so their official finding was "in excess of 500." We're sure all of them are completely trustworthy.
The NRC responded to these findings with a sound "Nuh-uh, we're doing fine." Crisis averted!
One Of The Most Expensive U.S. Nuclear Accidents Ever Happened Because Someone Bought The Wrong Cat Litter
Aside from covering up the toxic stench of cat shit, kitty litter has dozens of Pinterest-worthy alternative uses, from cleaning up oil stains to saving a cell phone you dropped in the toilet. It's also a key component in nuclear waste disposal, because litter isn't at all picky about what it absorbs. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for nuclear waste, which is very, very picky about the brand of litter it uses.
Whoever was in charge of buying the litter for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico back in 2014 had a fundamental (and hilarious) misunderstanding of the whole process. See, the point of using cat litter for nuclear waste disposal is that most cat litter is clay, which is inorganic. Note the word "most."
We're not sure if it was just on sale or if it had the cutest cat pictured on the bag, but the plant began packaging nuclear waste in a brand called "sWheat Scoop" -- which, as you might have sussed, is an eco-friendly product made from wheat, not clay. Being all organic and stuff, wheat is absolutely not recommended for nuclear waste disposal, even if it's in kitty litter form. Packed into a drum with radioactive material, the two created a delightful condition called "thermal runaway," which we're picturing as an even more lethal version of a fart hot box. In other words, the drum exploded.
Thankfully, nobody died, but 21 workers were "contaminated" with radiation, and the plant had to be entirely shut down. Only the one drum has exploded, but more than 500 additional drums were packaged with the incorrect litter. The ticking time-drums have been placed inside larger sealed containers as a preventative measure, and the White House budgeted some $243 million to clean up this train wreck. So next time you're buying kitty litter to dispose of your radioactive waste, remember: This is the one time it really, really doesn't pay to go green.
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