PLEASE NOTE: there is a very good reason there are no pictures associated with this story.
As some of you may know, I teach radiation safety course at a local community college. A while back, we were discussing bioassay techniques (read: ways determine if there’s been an uptake of radioactive material in the body, where, how, and how much) in my radiation safety class.
My fellow instructor, after explaining how fecal dosimetry techniques work, declared that no one, not the subject providing the sample, not the dosimetrist who has to process it, certainly not the rest of the lab staff, nor even the lab building’s neighbors, likes it when you have to do fecal samples.
I begged to disagree before the class. I clearly remembered an occasion that a world renowned health physicist and internal dosimetrist loudly declared in my presence “I LOVE FECAL SAMPLES!”
I stared at him very hard. He saw me staring. There was then a several beat pause…
He then corrected himself, declaring somewhat less loudly, “I love the numbers I get from fecal samples.”
Once again, I love making sure lessons hit home and stick for life with memorable vignettes like this to hang the information on. I’m proud to declare all our students aced that part of the exam. I’m just sad no one took video of my “Rubbin’ My Ass On Uranium” dance to demonstrate proper dosimeter badge usage.
Once upon a time, the radiation safety officer (RSO), let’s call him Bob, had been out performing the inventory of source material* and ran across a bit of excitement.
In this particular lab, they had approximately 10 grams of uranyl acetate, a very common contrast stain for electron microscopes. The poor unfortunate grad student who was trying to wrangle things for the RSO presented the uranyl acetate to Bob for him weigh and verify, but Bob ignored him. Bob was looking over the grad student’s shoulder at the fume hood behind him. Bob took a picture of it for us all to enjoy later, evacuated the lab, and told the grad student to get the department chair down here RIGHT NOW while Bob called the chemical safety folks to come up and help.
Flash forward to the staff meeting as Bob presents his pictures. I may have let out a pained yelp of terror when this one came up on the screen. I apologize for the lack of detail for this picture, but the brown bottle has a handwritten label that reads “PICRIC ACID, SAT. SOL., 3/18/69, *happy face*”
Bob: “So, does anyone see any problems with this picture?”
Me: “YES! There’s a four fucking liter bottle of picric acid!”
Bob: “Note that the bottle says ‘Sat. Sol.’ How would we know if it weren’t safe?”
Me: “Well, I suppose if it wasn’t safe they would’ve labeled it with a frowny face instead of a happy one.”
Bob: [gives me a glare] “Right, no more four day weekends for you. You get sarcastic if we give you too much time off. I was referring to the crystalline sediment in the bottom of the bottle that shows this is clearly a supersaturated solution now.”
Me: [emits another yelp of terror]
Co-Worker 1: “Jeez, they haven’t cleaned their lab in 40 years if that’s been lying around since it got labeled.”
Co-Worker 2: “No…the building they’re in now has only existed for 17 years. The had to move it here from somewhere else first…*trails off into contemplative horror*”
Supersaturated picric acid is a shock & light sensitive bomb, similar to unstable crystallized ether. There have been an awful lot of lab explosions over the decades due to forgotten picric bottles which is why it is pretty much banned in anything other than microquantities. A 4L bottle is a job that even the bomb squad is reluctant to touch.
As a nice bonus, if you look closely you’ll notice that there’s a bottle of 70% percholoric acid next to it, which is another potential bomb. At the very least, a POWERFUL oxidizer to help promote the coming firestorm when everything goes sideways.
The happy ending is that everything worked out nicely and nothing had to be detonated with a sniper rifle from a safe distance. This time.
* Source material is defined as naturally occurring or depleted uranium or thorium materials which could, potentially, be refined and enriched. In practice, this normally translates to “anything we feel like nailing you for not having on your inventory already” as this is stuff any member of the public can buy, but as license holder you have a responsibility to keep track of it.
Adding this slice of life from almost a decade ago at LLNL to the permanent record of Funranium Labs as a reference point for Test Subject Vision Scientist (subcategory: Male)
[SCENE: Early April 2008, Lawrence Livermore Nat’l Lab. The transition to the new managing private consortium, primarily run by Bechtel, has proven to be very uncomfortable and isn’t improving. All the people involved in this story, and even the departments, have moved on or are dead.]
The only thing I hate almost as much as group projects are All Hands meetings.
There is nothing more fun than a one hour meeting that runs a half hour over where no useful information is conveyed despite actual insightful, searching questions from the audience. It was very much a meeting because management felt it necessary to Say Something, except that everything anyone wanted to know they couldn’t say.
After then All Hands meeting I went to go visit a former co-worker who now works in the Department That Doesn’t Get Out Much Because They’re Too Busy Thinking Terrorist Thoughts. She asked how things were going out in the Lab at large where people get to see sunlight. After due consideration I described it, speaking very fast and panicky, “Ohgodohgodwe’reallgonnadietheskyisfalli
She blinked a few times and then she began laughing in way that I felt justified in grabbing the spill clean up kit just in case, which only made her laugh more. They’re a little short of entertainment in there.
This morning I was shocked to hear someone else describe a situation as “No Pants-Bear” Bad. I’ve gotten a stern finger waggling whilst sniggering by my manager for creating a new term that is spreading through the Laboratory like curium-244 contamination. I now give it to you to enjoy and share with the rest of the world.