Two Ways To Die From Radiation

I’ve been asked to do a post on what would make the body of a victim of a radiological accident radioactive.

[Trigger warning: This is an unpleasant subject. Descriptions of seriously damaged bodies follow. I am posting this as a public service for those trying to figure out what happened at Nyonoksa and those writing about it. The link for Louis Slotin is particularly unpleasant.]

There are two ways to die from radiation. One is to be heavily irradiated, from a radiation source outside the body. The other is to have radioactive matter in your body, to be internally contaminated. Only the second case requires that the body be contained when it is buried.

Louis Slotin was the second person to die from being irradiated. He was taking chances with a weapon-shaped critical assembly and made a mistake. He died nine days after. Others who were in the room, but further from the assembly, lived much longer. Distance from an irradiation source helps determine the dose.

The assembly went critical and flashed an enormous flux of neutrons. Slotin was standing right next to it, and pulled it apart with his hand. The neutrons slammed through his body depositing energy, effectively cooking him. Neutrons can interact with elements to make them radioactive, but mostly not what the human body is made of. Alvin Graves, who was standing further back in the room, had a number of metal crowns on his teeth. They were activated. A gold mouthpiece was made for him to prevent the soft tissues in his mouth from being burned. I’m not sure how long he had to use it, but activation products are typically short-lived, so I would guess weeks to months.

Graves, and Raemer Schreiber, who was standing with him, went on to become executives of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and lived normal lifespans. Slotin was buried in a normal coffin. The medical personnel who treated him were in no danger from radiation.

A very different accident took place in Goiânia, Brazil, in 1987 (Wikipedia, IAEA report). A hospital radiation source containing cesium-137, the same isotope mentioned in connection with the Nyonoksa incident, came into possession of people who did not know what it was. A couple of men stole the source from an abandoned radiotherapy site. They quickly showed symptoms of radiation poisoning from handling the source. They were irradiated, as was Slotin. They punctured the capsule and found a glowing powder. They shared the powder with friends. A child ate a sandwich contaminated with the powder. She was a danger to people treating her because she had the radioactive material inside her. She died and was buried in a lead-lined coffin.

A number of other people were contaminated. Some suffered health effects. Three other people died. The village had to be decontaminated. A number of houses and a great deal of soil had to be removed and disposed of as radioactive waste.

For the Nyonoksa incident, the report that two people died from radiation poisoning has not been confirmed. If a reactor went critical and caused an explosion, those nearby would probably have wounds and broken bones in addition to radiation injury. The wounds might be contaminated with radioactive shrapnel. If somehow the incident that irradiated them was separate from the explosion, their bodies would not be a danger to medical personnel. If some other source were involved (this seems more likely at present) and they died from radiation poisoning, it would probably be from contamination.

I want to explain more about radiation issues the press often gets wrong, but I think this is enough for one post.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

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