What are the odds that a nuclear energy regulatory agency would detect radiation while performing a routine check to make sure their mobile radiation detection unit was working properly?
The Jakarta Post recently reported that the Nuclear Energy Regulatory Agency of Indonesia was conducting routine testing of its equipment at a housing complex located several miles away from a building that housed small nuclear reactors. All areas showed normal radiation levels except for a vacant lot within the complex. Upon further investigation, they discovered several radioactive fragments, which had contaminated the soil and spread about in the area.
The source of radiation found is Caesium-137 (Cs-137), which is a form of Cesium (Atomic element 55) produced by nuclear fission. Cs-137 has many industrial uses, including medical radiation therapy for treating cancer, in industrial gauges that detect the flow of liquid through pipes, in Geiger counters, and in other industrial devices to measure the thickness of materials, such as paper, photographic film, or sheets of metal. A Jakarta Globe article noted that the contamination occurred underground and was most likely caused by illegal radioactive waste disposal, and not from the nuclear reactors.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “External exposure to large amounts of Cs-137 can cause burns, acute radiation sickness, and even death. Exposure to Cs-137 can increase the risk for cancer because of exposure to high-energy gamma radiation. Internal exposure to Cs-137, through ingestion or inhalation, allows the radioactive material to be distributed in the soft tissues, especially muscle tissue, exposing these tissues to the beta particles and gamma radiation and increasing cancer risk.”
In multiple online news reports from Indonesia, including tvOneNews and 20DETIK, authorities were filmed using handheld radiation isotope identifiers, a multi-purpose survey meter, and a telescopic probe to search for materials, monitor the area, identify surface contamination, and ascertain the exact isotope of the radioactive material in order to assess the potential threat and quickly initiate a plan of action. Hopefully anyone involved in the investigation and near the contaminated area were also utilizing personal radiation detectors and personal dose meters to continuously monitor for any radiation exposure.
Following the radiation discovery, Indonesian authorities cordoned off the area, collected soil and removed vegetation from the location. After the cleanup, the radiation levels fell by 30%. As decontamination efforts continue, several of the residents of the housing complex will undergo “whole body” examination to check the level of radioactive exposure. Authorities are continuing to monitor and clean up until the radiation arrives at the level considered safe for humans, and there is no longer any danger to the people or the environment.
Finding the radiation in a routine check was certainly a surprise to the authorities; luckily, however, they had the right equipment to detect the contamination so they could dispose of it properly and remove the threat.
For more information about radiation detection and measurement technology, visit the Radiation Protection for Government Agency Personnel section of our website.