Sometimes I go places and do things. Sometimes I play with radioactive things or radiation producing machines.

Occasionally, I do them at the same time.

CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE: Radon Hijinks

A good place to start is that counting labs rarely (read: I have never seen one) end up on the top floor with beautiful views of your surroundings. No, you get the dungeon labs where sunlight & windows are a rumor, but the radon down there is quite real.

[The eleventh in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

How much radon you have in your subterranean science lair is very much a function of where you are and what your local geology is like. But even in the newest, most freshly heaved from ocean sedimentary formations you’re going to have some. GOOD NEWS! Your building HVAC takes care of this. Well, it should take care of it. If the HVAC is balanced to actually move air through your room. Have you made friends with the Facilities folks yet? You should really do that. 

If you live around some really nice old cracked granite, you’ll have extra fans to blow it clear. In a fine parsing of the language of the scenario and the explainer tweets so far, you’ll notice I just said “radon”. I didn’t give you any specific radionuclides, like Rn-222. This is because for naturally occurring radon, you get all of the them, all the time. But with a half-life of just shy of 4 days, Rn-222 is the only one that really gets a chance to accumulate. The next longest lived is measured in hours. But they’re all there. But assuming your HVAC is working properly, this isn’t a issue. You know the radon evolution rate in your area and you ventilate appropriately. In most places, the typical air changes to blow your human stink out of the building is sufficient. In Wisconsin, you might want extra. 

Also, we don’t *really* detect radon. Radon is an annoying noble gas which means it doesn’t stick to anything, so it’s hard to get enough in any one place to detect. But it’s decay products when it spontaneously stops being radon? Oh yeah, we can work with those.

NOTE: for anyone about to share radon immersion dose stories and calculations, please smugly keep your edge case to yourself.

But what your instrumentation is telling you is that you are experiencing events where you are getting WAY more radon than normal and that’s weird. The question is from where. The game “What the hell is this signal?” is the unofficial hobby of all counting labs. Because you put your sample in the counter, you know what you expect to see and then when you a huge signal of something extra, well, that’s like a big wet fart from the man in front of you playing his Brown Note Solo during the quietest part of a symphony. In the CYORA: Surprise Positrons, an inconsiderate researcher managed to throw off pretty much every counting experiment in the entire building with their insufficiently shielded Na-22 source. Hooboy, those other researchers were hunting for that source.

Counting labs having anomalous signals, even if they’re far away, are how we’ve detected pretty much every incident that has happened in the Soviet Union and its successor states when they don’t feel particularly forthcoming at the time of the incident. If a reactor does the bad burp, you WILL notice it downwind. If it’s particularly bad, that signal will make its way all the way around the planet to show up on your detector from the other direction. Labs in Minsk detected Chernobyl before Sweden did but eventually everyone could.  But what reactor leaks don’t look like is radon. Depending on the particularly kind of leak, you’re going to have fission product signals that show up in your counts. As there’s only so many ways you can get those, you should probably call someone about that. 
If someone was rude enough to set up a SURPRISE ACCELERATOR next to your counting lab without so much as an Employee Right-To-Know chat over coffee, they’re probably using the other side of the wall from your detector as their backstop to be Maximally Inconsiderate Colleague. But again, an accelerator, even one operating in a mode/power that can cause activation, isn’t going to give you a radon signal. It’ll give you a big honking Bremsstrahlung curve to absolutely wipe out your detector, but not radon. Seriously, SURPRISE ACCELERATORS are rude, but they aren’t subtle. You tend to notice when one shows up before they turn it on and can have very productive discussions about shared spaces, resources, and institutional research priorities. It’s also a super great time to make new enemies for the rest of your respective careers.
Which means you’re now looking for the things that are subtle. Changes that might have happened that you can’t see. Perhaps changes that happened to the built environment that no one would think are an issue. Changes like someone getting a fancy new smaller counterweight for the elevator. Elevator counterweights come in a lot of flavors, but the key is that your space is limited in the shaft. Concrete is cheap, but very bulky. Junk steel? It’ll work. Lead? Now we’re talking to get the size down of the counterweight down and you already have a CA Prop 65 warning on the building anyway. Tungsten? You are superfancy and must have a lot of budget to burn because that’s expensive. How about a depleted uranium one?

Oh dear. 

As several of you identified, an elevator shaft is a lovely low space where you could collect radon but the pumping action of the elevator tends to flush it out regularly. Admittedly, your flushing it into the rest of the building but that’s what your HVAC is for. Having a DU counterweight means there’s a chance to evolve a teensy extra bit of radon in the elevator shaft from the decay of the U-238 as it heads toward equilibrium with its daughters. Mind you, hitting equilibrium is gonna take about a million years so it’s a teensy amount of radon. There are, however, several amusing gammas coming off the 2000kg+ slab of DU regularly going up and down the shaft. If your counting lab is near the elevator, you’re going to see it every damn time it goes by, but it’s not radon.
To get a radon spike large enough to effect your instruments you are going need, technically speaking, a shit ton of radon, far more than your build HVAC can handle. Where the heck are you gonna to get that? Why, the Earth of course!  But how to get it? Radon is constantly evolving out of the soil but must of it decays away before it ever gets a chance hit the surface. The rate of radon evolution is not only a function of the soil composition but also of weather. Depending on the barometric pressure, radon gets tamped down into the soil during highs and when it’s low, like a thunderstorm or blizzard, that lid comes off.

For very sensitive counting labs, watch the weather closely. 


For the events that inspire the scenario, there was a counting experiment that was getting pronounced Ra-226 lines showing up in their overnight runs at least once a month over the course of a year. There was no rhyme or reason other than “only overnight runs”. I was asked to help find the source of this mysterious source because one researcher had had their experiments ruined three times in a row and it was driving them crazy.

Keeping in mind what they told me, I started by looking at the experimental setup. Experiment looked solid and I found no signs of stray contamination leftover from previous experiments. All sources were accounted for and secure when I performed an inventory. I took a step back, sort of cleared my mind, and took in the whole space. That’s when I figured it out and moved one item. The random radium peaks vanished. 

They were very thankful. Then, six months later, it happened again. I got an angry phone call saying the peaks were back and I hadn’t fixed it after all. 

Me: Did you move your trashcan next to your experiment again?
Them: Uhh [clearly looking to check], yes. What’s that got to do with anything?
Me: As long as it was by the door, the janitor with a SPICY radium watch didn’t have to walk into your lab and near your incredibly sensitive experiment to empty the trashcan.
Them: WHY DOES A JANITOR EVEN HAVE A WATCH LIKE THAT IN MY SPACE?!!?
Me: Why didn’t you leave your trashcans out in the hallway like they were supposed to be in the first place. The janitor was doing you a favor by even entering your space to collect up your trash.

MORAL: Don’t blame the janitor for your fuck up.

~fin~ 

CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE – Demonstration Radiation

When you’re regarded as a teacher/professor’s favorite student over their entire career, it makes it very likely the school administration or alumni association will drop you a line for help, no matter what you went on to do in life.

This may encourage you to move far from home.

[The tenth in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

If you have memories, happy or otherwise, of your teachers having a seemingly endless supply of weird and concerning apparatus for demonstrations, I want to assure you there were SO MANY MORE they didn’t use in the backroom and back at their homes. The things your teacher’d bring out for demos are a function of a few things:
  • Where/how old is your school district?
  • How comfortable are they are using it?
  • How likely is it to break/easy to fix again?
  • Have they been specifically forbidden to use it by administration? 

The collection your teacher has to draw on is made up of the collective things ALL the science teachers that have ever taught there have left behind, everything of their own, and everything donated to the district over the decades. Because if you can give it away, and they accept it, it isn’t waste and you get a tax write off for the donation. You know, for kids! SEE ALSO: Navy base cleanup CYORA 

Sooooo, if you live near a military base, university, or national lab interesting things may sneak into your local high schools. Especially if your former teacher used to work at any of these institutions. They knew exactly what to grab from the surplus sales. 

It’s entirely likely the four items in this quiz are in the demo collection. For example, Luis Alvarez, his students, and Oppenheimer’s sons used to build cloud chambers and hand them out to anyone and everyone that wanted one within a several hundred mile radius of Berkeley, CA. What they didn’t typically give were radioactive sources to go with the cloud chamber. Not because the rules were strict or that the Nobel Prize winner was stingy but rather because a suitable radioactive source was very easy to lay hands on for most anyone those days. If it isn’t already mounted in the cloud chamber, there’s likely a box somewhere near it with a Ra-226 tipped needle or a small piece of pitchblende. Of course, this might be when you find the cabinet with a century worth of collected rad sources, but that’s a different CYORA. Old enough radium needles and crumbly ore will shed material, which is annoying and you have to clean up, but they aren’t a big dose concern. Use your GM to find all the bits and bag them all nicely.

But even in this blighted Year of Nergal 2020, your cloud chamber and the associated bits are probably the newest of the four at ~80 years old. Sears-Roebuck, however, made ABSOLUTE BANK selling medical quackery, pretty much from the first 1894 catalog. I’m not going to link to any of the modern inheritors of the 19th century hair growth stimulation wands, but suffice it to say this product class has never really gone away. Various specific products have been pulled from the market over the decades and dozens of new ones take their place. In summation, yes, I know all about the damn laser hats and have reported several to the FDA. Speaking of the FDA, as many of you noted, the peak of electricity based quack devices matches nicely with the rise of the radiation-based ones. And this all predates the Clean Food & Drug Act. 

 

There were absolutely manufacturers who reasoned MORE VOLTAGE, MORE RADON, MORE FUN, SIX FLAGS!!! and then they did the Mr. Six dance all the way to the bank. But the wand is more of an electrocution hazard than a radiological one with it’s fraying fabric insulation. The uranium or thorium in the glass of the wand’s discharge tip will glow nicely thanks to the discharge, but the dose rates won’t be much worse than depression glass.

Speaking of electrical fun, this brings us to the Van de Graff generator. A 450kV Van de Graff is about this size and works roughly like so for fun demos.

450kV will do good zaps, raise hair, and stick balloons everywhere. And while you can use a Van de Graff’s as an accelerator, you need to hit about 10MeV before I’m worried about you activating things with electrons. This one’s safe and will make the Halloween party look good. 
Which brings us to the hand-blown Crookes Tube. Hand-blown isn’t particularly concerning as that’s just how most of them were made, especially if you want something inside the tube as a target like a Maltese Cross or phosphor strip. If you aren’t familiar with this bit of apparatus, they look like this. I’m posting this video with a wince and going to have a nice sip of my cocktail. 

A Crooke’s Tube is more generically known as a cathode ray tube (CRT). CRT covers everything from this 19th century delight, to your old tube TV, to your x-ray unit. What they all have in common are electrodes, glass, vacuum, voltage…and the generation of x-rays. Did you notice the sound in that nine second video? That was their rad meter out of the shot reacting to all the x-rays emitted when voltage was applied to the tube. Very old tubes still function, though you may need to bake them out a bit before they’ll work well enough to give you a good glow. But why didn’t you ever hear about x-rays from your old TV’s CRT? Ever notice how heavy those damn things were compared to your flatscreen? Because we learned lessons quickly and added a bunch of lead to the tubes of consumer products. We also made the FDA’s responsible for them after one holiday shopping season production whoopsie.

The Crooke’s Tubes have none of that. Their soft x-ray emission *and how it aims* is a function of applied voltage, target material, how good the vacuum is, and what magnets you add. Some are highly directional. Others spew x-rays EVERYWHERE. Get your meter for this one. And I use the plural “tubes” because no self-respecting teacher has just one, unless that’s the only one left intact after a century of instruction. For public instruction, you want the dose rate <2µSv/hr. You might discover you need to move some desks to use them. 


For the inspiring events for this scenario, while my high school physics/chemistry teacher had all the things listed in the quiz and so much more (especially the Sears medical quackery instruments), P.Q. le Boom’s Collection is not the subject in question here. 

A physics demo group had a remarkable collection of hand-blown Crooke’s Tubes, dozens in all kinds of configurations, with the newest having been made by Zeiss in 1923. The oldest had been made in-house by the demo group’s predecessors over a century earlier. They’d been in continuous use for ~100yrs for classroom demonstration for professors. Nor had the demos changed much in a century. Then SOME COMPLETE BASTARD asked if anyone had ever done a dose rate measurement of them in operation as set up by professors for instruction. And so, one by one, each of the configurations got set up in every single one of the classrooms to assess the setup, tubes, and teaching space.

PROTIP: Do not aim your tube at students. That’s rude. Use a camera if you want them to see the Maltese Cross shadow. 

At a basic level, they needed to determine if there were any dose rates in excess .2µSv/hr in the classroom.

ANSWER: Each and every one of the tubes was in excess of that for the professor at the front of the classroom. But that’s fine, they’re rad workers.

With the worst of the tubes, even in the largest auditorium, you’d have had to evacuate the first six rows. In the smaller class rooms, you wouldn’t have been able to let any students remain physically present at all. Of the dozens of tubes, it was whittled down to five acceptable ones and only allowed to be used in certain spaces. If there’s a positive aspect to remote instruction in the COVID-19 era, you won’t be in the front row of class, looking down the bore of a 120 year old Crooke’s Tube.

~fin~

CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE – The Counting Experiment

Mooching off of other departments is always a challenge, if for no other reason than they’re gonna mooch right back at you later.

Of course, the things they’re most willing to give you is their garbage. As the saying goes, “It’s not waste if someone else has a use for it.”

[The ninth in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

PROTIP: try not to become someone else’s rad/hazardous waste disposal site because you thought you might be able to eke out some use of someone else’s garbage. Especially if it comes with extra bonus hazards beyond the thing you want it for. For a low background, when also low on cash, you’re looking for things that:
  • Are dense enough to block things from outside your counting experiment
  • You can actually afford/find/work with (sorry tungsten)
  • Do not contain too much rad signal of their own to mess things up 
This is why you probably don’t want to go raid Mechanical Engineering’s machine shop for their stainless steel stash. Odds on favor, everything was made post-1945 which means all that steel is going to have an atmospheric atomic testing signature to it. Also, for a while, one of the approaches to disposing of activated (radioactive) metal was the old “dilution is the solution” approach by recycling it into the smelters. The result was steel that is ever-so-slightly more radioactive than it should be. And that describes pretty much all steel, everywhere, in the world. Because so much metal recycling happens all the time as part of the smelting process, the smelters are also all ever-so-slightly more radioactive than they should be. Enough to notice, especially in a counting experiment.

Getting “quiet” steel is not easy. For a while, there was deep lust in the research community for normalization of relations with Cuba so they could get their hands on all that pre-WWII steel preserved in the old American behemoth cars there. Also WWI & II shipwrecks. The steel you might steal from MechE would be fine for building the outermost layer of your counting experiment, but the Co, Fe, Ni, and V lines (depending on the type of steel) are going to drive you nuts. Also, it’s just not dense enough to shut out enough of the outside world.

A few of you suggested “Why not just use a lot of water?” That is actually an excellent solution, except that we’re talking A LOT of a water. [imagines cooperative lab space inside @MontereyAq‘s Outer Bay tank] Also remember, this is poverty constrained. Building an underwater lab is, well, kind of anomalously wealthy criminal mastermind territory. We can do hydrogenous shielding to block out neutrons with a “brick” of water, which I would normally describe as a fish tank picked up at the thrift store for $2. But that’s not gonna help here. You want gammas and cosmic rays gone and can’t afford a Science Submarine. 

But there is that giant bin of scrap copper…

If there’s away to get the cops called on you as fast than stealing things from a museum collection, it’s trying to grab that. Most institutions jealously guard their scrap copper because it has more value. Also, that bin may not belong to the institution but rather a contractor they hired where “scrap metal reclamation” was part of their contract and is considered part of the compensation. If you mess with someone’s livelihood, they’re gonna come for you, maybe with a hammer. But if you can get it AND you have the tools to make some fresh copper bricks/plates, you’re in business. Well, other than problem that scrap copper is rarely pure copper. You just smelted an alloy and that’s has the same issues as the steel, but not as badly. So, it’ll work, but you need quite a bit of copper to block everything from the outside world. Enough that you’re gonna want a security system to deter other thieves.

Anyway, as long as were thinking about theft, how about that museum? 

When looking for lead to use in shielding, just like all the rest, we want quiet, pre-WWII lead. Because some naturally occurring isotopes of lead are radioactive, the older the better. And when looking for old things, you can’t beat a museum. Unfortunately for you, the things in museums get these fancy labels like “specimen”, “collection”, “cultural heritage item” or “National Treasure On Loan From The Ministry Of Antiquities”. So, they probably aren’t going to let you melt those down to cast new brick with old lead. But sometimes, SOMETIMES, they may be willing to work with you. For example, if the museum itself is quite old and they saved the previous lead roof to show how the museum used to be built but they don’t need all of it. In fact, you’d be doing them a favor to help make room if you took some of the excess roof sheeting off their hands. In this example, you will want to clean that lead first because it was a roof and thus has a small signal of atmospheric testing thanks to fallout. You won’t get it all, but you can make it quieter. Smelt cleanly, don’t accidentally add anything new in and you’re in good shape! 

But maybe there’s nothing available or the Anthropology department won’t play ball with you. With a heavy heart, you go to the place you know has plenty of lead bricks: Chemistry. They don’t use them quite as much any more, so they’re fairly happy to share with you. Chemistry bricks have been loved. Good news is that most of them are pretty old. Might not pre-date the Manhattan Project, but old. Unfortunately they’re also battered, gouged, and oxidized from having been constantly used in different setups for decades. Building your counting cave was probably gonna get you in the lead worker monitoring program anyway, but you definitely will be after handling these manky bricks.

And while they might be fallout and smelter recycling clean, they have been in the presence of Chemistry. They aren’t CLEAN clean. Chemistry is messy. When you get one of these bricks, you hope against hope that the white crusty stuff on them is just lead oxide. The reason chemistry has so many lead bricks is because they’d been doing radiochemistry. So, get the meter and start surveying them for rad contamination. Good news here is that lead is soft. If you find fixed contamination you can’t just wipe off, you can gouge it out to make a much smaller bit of contaminated lead waste to rid off and keep most the brick. Or, maybe, you can give this brick back to them and ask nicely for a less crapped up one. It’s worth a try.


In the events that inspire this scenario, a researcher was indeed building a counting cave and actually needed steel, lead and copper (because Cu is good at blocking the Bremsstrahlung made in the Pb when it does it’s shielding thang) to make it structurally sound and quiet. 

Researcher was rich in available labor pool, resourcefulness, and skills but with a budget that had been entirely blown on the ABSOLUTE BEAST of a detector, leaving roughly $3.50 to build the experiment itself. Ever watch Junkyard Wars? They treated the entire campus this way. The copper was eventually identified as stripped from a now defunct experiment that needed a full room Faraday Cage. The steel was heavy plate stock of a particularly nice alloy which they slipped into framing so they didn’t have to drill any holes. This way it wouldn’t be noticed when they slipped the plates back into the machine shop storage area that they had purloined them from, but with every intention of returning.

For lead, yeah, they had to go with Chemistry lead. Which is where it all went wrong.

Some of the bricks they got didn’t just predate the Manhattan Project; they’d been used as part of the Manhattan Project. Not so long ago, the approach to lead use was along the lines of “Grab some old beat up bricks from the pile, go down to the shop and cast some new ones. Or don’t you know how to do that, scrub?” Or even better, why settle for bricks when you cast the exact shapes you want in lead. Which means there was active recycling of lead throughout the Manhattan Project, by the researchers, while they were working on it. And, as I said, chemistry is messy. 

Now decades later, the researcher’s group surveyed the free Chemistry bricks. They tried to gouge out hot spots. Then they got a plane from the carpentry shop to try to shave the bricks when it seemed like the entire surface was contaminated. This didn’t work because it was bulk contamination of ENTIRE brick.

And so, in trying to work cheap with enthusiasm and creativeness, they managed to make a simultaneous lead and radiological contamination incident. As you might guess, that cost a lot more to clean up than $3.50. Even more than the detector itself.

~fin~

CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE – Med vs. Rad

Medical Emergency vs. Rad is the natural follow up to Fire vs. Rad because the responder priorities are exactly the same: Life, Property, and Environment. Though in some jurisdictions they swap the order of those last two.

Life saving efforts are always top priority though.

Which is why it is such a dick move at the level of war crime to drop/set off a second bomb 10-20min after the first to make sure you nail all the responders doing life saving efforts. But I digress. 

In general, during contamination incidents that also have injuries we do our best to simultaneously decon and render medical attention as close to the site of the incident as safely possible, with priority on treating the injury. This comes back to what I yelled at my firefighters about in the previous CYORA linked in the header. The latency for most radiological issues, other than certain leukemias, is ~40 years. The latency for arterial bleeding is minutes at most. The reason medical issues get priority is that you don’t have much time to work with. You don’t have long to save the malfunctioning meat colony hanging on a bone reef. But, man, we can spend 80+ years decontaminating spaces, equipment, dirt and water. You know, when we remember to care about it and allocate money for the effort. We have all the time in the world for inanimate objects & environment! 

But the Responder’s First Rule always applies: don’t become a victim yourself. If there is a chance for serious radiation exposure or material uptake by the responders, this matters and this is also why you have health physicists to tell you how long you can be in there. Acute external radiation exposure tends to not be an issue in these cases, but then there’s situations like the criticality accidents. Victims are most certainly dead if you don’t get them out immediately. The traditional advice of NEVER MOVE INJURED PEOPLE no longer applies. 

First responders do have dose thresholds where we can ask them to do their jobs with higher than normal exposures, but we don’t ask them to jump into the heart of a reactor. No “biological robots” here. In the US, we have the following limits:

  • .05Sv normal annual dose limit
  • .1Sv work to save property
  • .25Sv for life-saving/disaster mitigation 
If things are really bad, you can ask for volunteers to exceed .25Sv but you can’t force them to go in. You reserve this for absolutely critical life saving efforts or things like “Someone needs to go in to flip the switch to stop the pump fueling the crit accident.” All your responders have PPE, even more monitoring than normal, etc. to minimize their uptake of material and make sure they don’t overexpose themselves. It’s very rude to treat your responders as disposable. Also, you spent a lot of money training them. They’re valuable. And while it’s not fun to think about, health physicists also get to do the math to tell first responders NOT to go in. We accept responder dose for life saving purposes; we do not take unnecessary dose for corpse retrieval. 

But in this scenario you have a living (for the moment), contaminated accident victim riddled with glass. The scenario asked you which choice would “best minimize the spread of contamination & help save the patient.” Because while life saving is a priority, we aren’t dumb. The less we have to move the victim, the less likely we are to injure them further AND the less likely we are to spread contamination. Potential contamination does matter, so someone responding to this accident also needs to be taking note of who has gone where. Probably several someones. Why does it matter? Because those are areas you’re going to have to go back and decon later after the medical part of the response is over. You have more time but man oh man is it easier when you have some notes about where to look. 

Ideally, you’d bring your medical responders to a safe area near the the accident to minimize the movement of the patient and spread of contamination. Particularly large facilities, or ones with some “high consequence” materials and operations, often have medical staff on site. But that’s not going to let your doctor do much more than some advanced first aid. Enough to stabilize the victim to get them to the hospital. Perhaps to work with the rad safety people to get the nastier of the contamination off before transport. What you aren’t going to get do in most cases is full decon before transport. If you can get their clothes off, which is where most of the contamination is, that’s super. Go for it. But the clock is ticking and time is blood. Decon showers and such probably aren’t happening. 

The nice/horrible thing about the shards is that they constitute an internal uptake of radioactive material by injection. Your victim is politely containing that material in themselves and not spreading it as contamination for the time being. But since shards though clothes into the victim are gonna make the clothes hard to remove, you gently put them in Tyvek suit and load them off for transport to hopefully contaminate the ambulance as little as possible.

But if time is of the essence, you transport without delay. This is where you probably lose an ambulance for a while afterward. They’ve got impermeable surfaces and are meant to be cleaned because they transport malfunctioning meat colonies that may be very messy indeed. But, wow, there are so many nooks and crannies in those things. There is a point where you throw your hands up and write it off because the time & cost of labor to decon exceeds the cost of the ambulance itself. If you’re gonna be throwing an ambulance away, chose an old one. But sometimes you NEED that ambulance. During a mass casualty incident, contaminated victims can seriously wipe out your transport capability when you need it most. Plastic down that you replace every run, a quick meter survey for anything serious, and then you’re off again. 

Which brings us to the hospital itself. In a perfect world, you’ve already got arrangements with the hospital for how to deal with contaminated patients, they’re trained for it, and you’ve all run drills together to make sure everyone knows what to do.

[waits patiently for the laughter to die down] 

Hospitals do not appreciate SURPRISE CONTAMINATION INCIDENTS. Everything I said about ambulance decon applies to operating rooms too, though they’re more precious and difficult to clean. Before transport, you should call ahead to let them know what’s coming so they can prepare. They will open different doors, slap plastic up, whatever they can do to make a controlled, easily decontaminated corridor to an operating room with the least possible disruption to the rest of hospital operations. And, if they can, they will do this in the parking lot as triage. Might not be as sterile as an operating room, but any equipment & supplies they need for the triage tent are conveniently right in the hospital. Rad safety people from the worksite tend to come with the victim and they’ll get handed all the contaminated shards. Hospital doesn’t want ’em. 

Once the victim is no longer in danger of dying of their injuries, now begins the complicated work of trying to determine what their material uptake was. This going to involve pretty much every orifice, including bonus ones like wounds, and everything a human body can excrete. If the preliminary sampling and math for the internal dosimetry doesn’t look promising, it’s good you’re already at the hospital because it may be time to start chelation therapy.
PROTIP: You don’t do chelation without medical supervision. It’s a really nasty way to die. 

 


In the inspiring event for this scenario, the victim wasn’t working with a hot cell, though that certainly has happened in the past, but rather in a glovebox where the exhaust fan had a rather severe hiccup and causing the window to shatter. On a positive note, this means the victim didn’t get a face and torso full of shards but arms and hands instead. Through the gloves. Considering the actinides this glovebox was normally used for, that’s bad. It worth noting that the glovebox window going away immediately caused all the continuous air monitoring systems to go off, getting emergency responders headed that way immediately. Odds of a materials uptake by victim = VERY YES

GOOD NEWS: The gloves were thick enough that they caught most of the shards with only a few penetrating deeply.

BAD NEWS: The now exposed gloves were *very contaminated* from handling materials over the years and need to be kept from crapping everything up. 

And so, the victim got out of the glovebox room, stood immediately outside of the door for help. Their arms, that were still wearing the gloves with glove ports attached, got plastic bags taped over them. This helped contain contamination and, well, blood. Took some nasal swabs to see how much of the actinides in question they’d gotten up the snoot and then took them over to the clinic. They were met in parking lot with a cart full of equipment to delicately get those gloves off and into a waste drum. After plucking the shards, the doctor effectively did bloodletting by letting the wound flow for a bit to hopefully clean the rad materials out before stitching things up. That blood was collected to assess what had been flushed vs. what the Wound Counter saw remaining. 

Yes, there is a specialized piece of radiation detection equipment called a Wound Counter.

Patient was conscious and making jokes through all this. Their favorite was “I don’t look forward to explaining my new track marks to the clearance investigator.” 

The best part of it was that the punch biopsy they did just outright removed all the contamination in one wound. A bioassay which is actually decon is A+ work. The victim was scarred but fine, with quite the dose assigned to them over the next 40 years of their life.

~fin~

CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE – Urban Explorer Wildlife

This scenario is much like when the Local Color brings you a dead radioactive seagull, except this time your surprisingly competent coworkers may have captured an actual live, radioactive, and displeased animal to bring to you.

It’s just another day in paradise.
[The seventh in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

When you’re working in a sampling lab, you get used to receiving some odd things but for all of them it means reducing that odd thing to a useful form for your analytical techniques. If presented a shitting, pissing, terrified, & angry feral cat YOU DON’T REDUCE THE CAT ITSELF.  Luckily, the cat is presenting you with plentiful samples for in vitro bioassay. Just see if you can collect it without contaminating it with you own blood. That’s just bad technique. If you wanted to do in vivo counting, that’s another matter. Much like dealing with an uncooperative cat for anything else, it’s CAT BURRITO TIME to stick them in the whole body counter, though for small animal veterinary applications this is more “sit still you sonofabitch while I set the NaI probe next to you GODDAMMIT DON’T PEE AGAIN!” 

PROTIP: Most non-medical/veterinary radiation detection equipment don’t react well to urine.

This applies to all four animals in the poll, but some can be more displeased at you than others. And the questions of “Which derelict building?” & “Suspect why?” become more important. Particularly astute readers noted that all of these animals are primarily carnivores, which means they’re up a trophic level for bioaccumulation of materials. Each of these animals answer different questions because of how they sleep, how far they range and how/what they hunt. This, incidentally, is why large institutions tend to have an ecologist and/or veterinary on staff or on retainer. When what you know is how the detectors work, they can help you understand animal behavior and give context for the readings on your detectors so they make sense. 

Cats, foxes, and raccoons all like to make dens in cramped hard to reach places in your derelict buildings. Coincidentally, these are the same places humans are least likely to have checked or cleaned since…ever. It’s nice of the animals to go sampling with their fur in there. 

Some of you were incredulous that such animals would get into derelict buildings. Folks, this is a sign from an accelerator facility when it was still active. Life finds a way. Especially if they’re assholes like raccoons or cockatoos.

Image

No, I will not tell you where this picture was taken.

The history of that building helps you determine what contamination you expect these animals to have picked up. Of the four, the feral cat is most likely to be living its life *entirely* in the confines of your building, with all water and food sources in there as well. Thus, the feral cat makes a good composite sample of your building.

Raccoons, on the other hand, wander anywhere they can fit for the sheer assholery of it and they do it in groups. On a positive note, they’ll help sample below grade pipes for you. Raccoons are nature’s true urban explorers. However, their range isn’t going to be limited to a single derelict building. Their range is ALL of your buildings. Your raccoon isn’t just sampling past operations, they’re likely sampling current ones as well. In short, respect trash pandas.

But not everyone is lucky enough to have their lands blessed by raccoons (pours one out for the UK). In pinch, foxes will behave much the same way but, generally speaking, the only thing the fox is going to do is sleep in your building. Compared to cats and raccoons, foxes have a much larger hunting range and their primary diet is burrowing animals. So, GOOD NEWS, the fox is a nice composite sample for any soil and groundwater contamination in the vicinity of your building. And while I like to focus on raccoons and cockatoos and the Apex Non-Human Assholes in the animal kingdom, I want to give honorable mention to foxes for things like destroying low voltage wires for monitoring equipment by chewing on them and burrowing under or jumping over ANY fence you erect. If you try to restrict a certain area to people and nature by fencing, by the time you finish putting it up there is probably a fox already on the wrong side of it. They are amazing creatures in this respect. Truly remarkable. [flips off foxes, David Attenboroughly] 

Which brings us to the barn owl. If your coworkers are bringing you a live, radioactive, and angry raptor I assume you have done something to deserve this. They hate you and this is their very pointy and sharp revenge. I want to be very clear here. Unless you very, very much know what you are going DO NOT MESS WITH RAPTORS. Flappy dinosaurs will end you or, at the very least, try to take an eye. Owls are no exception to this. Speaking of flappy birds, some of you noted that owls fly. Good job! Your barn owl has similar hunting preferences to the fox but with a much larger range because flying. You can get a very current composite regional sample by waiting for the owl to hork up a fresh pellet for you. Patience, goggles and leather gloves are key. 

All of these animals become radioactive because of human activity. They either:

  • Rolled around in a contaminated area.
  • Drank contaminated water
  • Ate contaminated food

The animals show not just what is in the ecosystem but how it’s moving and by what pathways. 


The two inspiring events for this scenario come from the same building separated by mere months. When you derelict a building, it’s polite to mark are all the things in the building that are energized so that future people know they need to de-energize things before demolition. So, someone with spray paint has to go tag all the panels, conduits and piping that are still live. Sometimes those conduits are overhead and you need a ladder to get at them. Sometimes they’re outside, there’s a barn owl sleeping on top of the conduits and they don’t appreciate getting nailed with red spray paint 

 

I understand the owl’s position fully. It had been asleep and then SOME COMPLETE BASTARD (me) woke it up by making its plumage more cardinal-like. I would have discombobulatedly flown at the COMPLETE BASTARD and knocked them off the ladder too. 

Owl did not go far because it was sleepy and freshly painted. After making sure nothing was injured other than pride, I called for an animal rescue team to help clean up the poor owl. In return (revenge?), the ecology team asked me to collect all the pellets I could find. There were a lot. 

On a different day, I got asked to go check the sumps in the high bay to see if rainwater leaking through the roof had managed to pick up anything and take it down to the lowest low point, the sump. A lazy composite sample of sorts in the grossest place. The HUGE sumps had long since had all the equipment taken out of them and been filled with vermiculite to absorb oil and such. Like the biggest kitty litter box you’ve ever seen, which is exactly what I discovered the feral cat colony had treated them as. This is how I got asked to sift the pit for choice cat turds for analytical purposes.

All was well until I hit the Turd of Unusual Size. It was possible there could’ve been a mountain lion that had made it’s lair in this building. Cats are cats after all…

We pretty quickly ruled out the other usual wildlife and came up with the hypothesis of a security guard taking a Sump Dump. This raised questions no one wanted to ask much less get answers to. This part of my poop sampling career came to an end.

~fin~

CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE: Wildfire vs. Rad

The traditional answer to avoiding NIMBY crap, whatever your particular issue may be, is to build your facility three miles down the road from the ass end of nowhere. Unfortunately, the suburbs will follow you and suddenly it’s your fault that you’re in their backyard again. You can’t win.
[The sixth in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

GOOD NEWS: when McMansions attack they bring some support networks with them.

BAD NEWS: not *enough* support network, because one of the reasons to move to the sticks is to avoid taxes which would pay for that support, so…bummer. 

But there was a good thing to really help under resourced jurisdiction that grew out of the catastrophe of the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire: the birth of the Mutual Aid System. READ: when you call for help, people will come, and everyone will use the same jargon, clear speech, and radio frequencies (except NYC). This was also the birth of Unified Incident Command. Everyone in America, except NYC, got the message that it’s nice when you can count on your neighboring agencies to help you in a pinch. Outside agencies trying to help NYC with 9/11 had a really hard because they alone hadn’t got with the program, which was one of the many findings of the 9/11 Commission. NYPD could barely talk amongst themselves, much less coordinate with NYFD. Trying to undo NYC’s “The New York way is the best way and fuck you” attitude for just emergency response was one small part of creating the Department of Homeland Security. You know, so we can learn how NYC wants to do things and make sure the rest of the country does that to.

But I digress.

In the American West, one of the most deployed groups under Mutual Aid are the hotshot teams, AKA professional wildland firefighting crews that are usually the very first backup that arrives to a wildfire that’s exceeded the locals’ capacity to fight. What your hotshots can do is very dependent on how fast the wildfire is moving, terrain, and what they have time to set up before it’s too late. Your hotshots see that NFPA diamond and call because they want a little more guidance than “PROTECT BUILDING”. People did a close read of the NFPA diamond primer I shared, but missed some close reading of the listings where those are *examples* of behavior. A Yellow 2 (reactivity) does not guarantee water incompatibility. If that was the case, you’d get this down in the white section.

Image
And while these quizzes seem to prime and attract people who are frightened/intrigued by radiation hazards, let me assure you that there is nothing that a firefighter wants to see less than that W. They don’t like rad, but they HATE “no water”.  To quote my old Santa Clara County Fire instructor, Cap’n Bubba, if you cannot put the wet stuff on the hot stuff until it is cold stuff and this does not compute to the firefighter mind. (Cap’n Bubba was a very bright hazmat guy but liked to play dumb hosedragger.)

But back to the NFPA diamond, of the 3-4-2-rad, the Yellow 2 is the least concerning. The rad trefoil down in Other Information will give most firefighters pause but it’s nowhere near as terrifying as the Blue 4. That tells the team there is either a prompt death or a fast cancer. This is where I get to share one of my favorite acronyms from the field of Industrial Hygiene to describe what a facility with a Blue 4 is when it’s on fire. IDLH: Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health. 

via GIPHY

Remember, the NFPA diamond is telling you about the hazards of the contents this building *WHEN IT IS ON FIRE*. For example, the dumpster fires behind Silicon Valley chip fabs in the 1970s where you suddenly have an entire engine crew dead of interesting cancers within 6mo (yes, this happened). Funny enough, things we normally would be day-to-day very worried about working with for their carcinogenicity, like asbestos or beryllium, would hardly count on the NFPA diamond during a fire. For that matter, radioactive materials don’t get more radioactive because you lite them on fire, but you might make a larger mess. This is why they’re down in “Other Information”. You need the other three to know how bad things are as you approach and the white diamond is just Challenge Score Multiplier. 

No one likes to see rad on the sign but the thing we trainers continually drill into firefighters is that they remember the response hierarchy: Life, Property, Environment. We can’t unkill someone. We can’t unburn a building or a forest. But we can clean up afterward. And of course, the First Responder’s First Rule: look out for your safety, because you help no one if you become a victim too. Which brings us back to the hotshots. They are not hazmat responders but they do know all about defensive actions for protecting structures. 

They aren’t gonna set up downwind monitoring because they have much more important things to do with chainsaws. Notify the EPA or local equivalent to get things started on that. For that matter, there may be no wet stuff to put on hot stuff here. Generally speaking, there’s gonna be hookups at somewhere on the site for them to run hoses to but if that’s not in a strategically safe space or the water supply is gone then the hotshots do what they do best: chainsaws, backburns, and trenching. If the circumstances are kind enough to make the protective lines to keep the fire from getting to the building, stay upwind and at good distance following the rule of thumb: stick your arm out, stick up your thumb, and if that covers the entire incident, you are far enough away. 

If they aren’t the kind, you evacuate and you evacuate fast because the Blue 4 with a Red 3 tells you don’t want to be near that building when it goes up. Radioactive things hardly count in this scenario other than to give your hotshots a moment’s pause. 

In the inspiring event for this scenario, unfortunately, rad concerns did give the fire crew pause. Mainly because I had *just* trained them how to use their new radiation detection instrumentation the previous week. New meters and the Very Nice Educational Man who answered any and all questions they had, which apparently previous trainers had not, meant they’d spent the intervening days thinking a lot about radiation hazards.

When the emergency alert went out, I happened to be nearby and went to go see what was up as the call was for a building I kinda took care of when other people went on vacation. Lo and behold, the fire crew I’d recently trained was at the end of the block from the building, standing around the truck in turnouts, as a small plume of smoke rose from the building.

Me: What the fuck are you standing here for?
Captain: The building has rad on the diamond.
Me: So?
Captain: We can’t hose that down.
Me: If you don’t there won’t be a building anymore. The latency of hard body radiogenic cancers are about 40 years. The latency on that fire is minutes.
Captain: But the contamination…
Me: I CAN CLEAN CONTAMINATION! THAT’S MY FUCKING JOB! It’s expensive, it takes a long time, but I can’t unburn a building. Use your fucking meters like I trained you and put the fucking fire out.
[firefighters scurry] 

When I shared this story with Cap’n Bubba later, I thought he was gonna to wet his alligator skin cowboy boots from laughing so hard. He complimented me on my understanding of firefighter mindset and creative use of motivational swearing.

Incidentally, the building was fine.

~fin~

MORAL: The real lesson of this thread, and that my firefighters need to take to heart, is not getting fixated when assessing the Immediacy of Hazards. In the event of fire, FIRE is the most immediate concern. You can worry about radiation releases/exposures when you aren’t burning.

CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE – Collections of the Dead

It’s clear that folks have some experience clearing out the homes & offices of deceased friends and relatives who were eccentric. From the previous Radioactive Seagull Adventure, perhaps they were the Local Color.

Inherit enough interesting things, you might get known as the Local Color too.

[The fifth in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

 

It’s clear that many made the inference “Manhattan Project researcher” + “rockhound” + “collector” = ALL THE RADIOACTIVE MINERALS. Having cleared out my fair share of places, this isn’t a bad inference. If you aren’t using Fiestaware as a check source, U/Th minerals work well too. 

But for this scenario, I asked where do you fear to tread the most. This is cruel trickery on my part as it prompts you with “fear” and that prompting causes you to try to think like the deceased through a lens of fear of the objects in their home. A big part of situations like this is sleuthing. The radioactive, toxic, etc. characteristics of your substances are intrinsic. How they got to where they are now and, how bad that might be, is a function of human behavior which is what you’ve got to figure out. The prompt to fear kept most of you from starting at the real motivation point of a collector: love & obsession. That completely shifts where you find things. 

The hard part then is trying to figure out “What where they collecting? What were they trying to complete a set(s) of?” As an example, I am a coin collector but this doesn’t mean I collect ALL coins. I collect mostly American coins. But then you see coins from the Philippines. Wait, how do these and the Kingdom of Hawaii coins fit into an American coin collection? This is because in the larger collection, there is a subset of “This Is ALSO American Money”. And then you see this coin in a different smaller binder. Because I also have the Atomic Coin Collection.

If you didn’t already know the deceased, as you start looking around the place you start forming a picture of the person. You start figuring out what they cared about and the hierarchy of love and pride in their possessions, which is normally expressed by proximity. To a first approximation, the garage, basement and shed contains the things that are either too large, too dangerous, duplicates in the collection, or are outliers that just don’t quite fit a theme in the collection. The desk & shelves will have the most treasured mementos, the best examples of type, the most exotic things, and the most difficult to complete collections. In short, you will find the things they wanted to show off. The prettiest minerals specimens will be here. @mikamckinnon, DO NOT LICK! But as you look around in here you’re going to learn what the collections, note the plural, are. NOTE: just look, do not touch yet.

Personally, I have the utmost terror of offices because a live grenade as been a treasured item more than once. But that’s me. And, JUST BECAUSE, before you start opening drawers in filing cabinets and desks be sure you have gloves, I want you too look very closely for wires connected to things and for something that looks like can on the corner. Thermite document destruction happens. :( 

Some of you already expressed an appropriate terror of accidentally discovering classified materials. Hopefully, you don’t find anything and there’s no document safe. But if you do, DON’T READ THEM ANY FURTHER, stick it in a bag and keep custody of it until you can turn it over. Promptly. Annoyingly, this is a security violation to even have in your possession but you tend to get the benefit of the doubt for turning them over as soon as possible. It probably was for the deceased too but, well, they’re dead and no longer subject to disciplinary action. Also, don’t be surprised to find various loaded firearms in the office. It happens. 

We move on to all the boxes in garage. This represents the second strata of their collections and their most recent/unsorted acquisitions. If there’s a workbench in here, that will have the newest and most interesting items. This will also be where you find the first big item. I can’t begin to tell you what that big item is going to be, but the collection will be an indicator. Maybe it’s a boulder. Maybe it’s restored Sherman tank. Maybe it’s the largest damn vacuum tube you’ve ever seen that is, oddly, radioactive too. The boxes on the shelves here in the garage are going to constitute larger mineral samples and, knowing collectors, they’ve been sorted. Hopefully the heaviest things are on the bottom shelf, but safety isn’t usually the priority of collectors. Most of them won’t be radioactive. The nature of the sorting is going to be hard to tell without some detailed mineralogy knowledge. One hopes it’s been done by mineral groups, like “here’s a big box o’ spinels”, but it’s just as likely that you’ve got “various ores”. Meter survey to separate the rad and try to avoid the arsenic & mercury. 

Moving on to the stuck door to the basement, with a modicum of brute force greater than a nonagenarian can exert or a crowbar, you are now entering a space that the deceased hasn’t touched in years. This is the Realm of Abandoned Projects. Before the door stuck and the stairs down to the basement became too hard to negotiate, the basement is where old researchers go to putter. If you’re lucky, the puttering of choice is a 1500sqft model train layout. If you’re unlucky, that layout is of the Nevada Test Site. One of those things that may let you know if you’re in for Very Interesting Projects is the electrical box. If you see they have more electrical service that you might usually expect you may, for example, discover a synchrotron or fusor cobbled together downstairs. A collection of instrumentation racks still bearing AEC property tags on them from when they were discarded, grabbed from the dump and set back up to make a home counting lab. You know, to see how good their ores are. With a dissolver chemistry set to do that… 

It may, or course, just be even more falling apart boxes of stuff and ALL THE RADON. Hopefully the fan blowing all that clear is still working, but no ones checked in a while and it doesn’t take long for a basement filled with ore to evolve a fair bit of radon and daughters. There are, of course, even more workbenches and the remains of decades of tinkering down here. This is also where you’re likely to find the largest chemical storage, though unlikely with proper storage. If you’re in earthquake country, lucky you got there before the big one. 

And so you step out into the sun again and approach the shed purchased from Sears and put up decades earlier. The memory of David Hahn, the Radioactive Boy Scout, popped into people’s minds. Bless his heart, Hahn was an amateur and fairly incompetent. To do anything scary out in the shed with a head full of Manhattan Project, you’re gonna need to run utilities. You’ll notice if that’s happened and back off appropriately. But from the collector point of view, what you’re going to find out here are the things they cared about least or that are the most dangerous. And that doesn’t mean most dangerous parts of the collection, like the 108mm DU round with live primer which is *obviously* at the side of their desk, but more like the boxes of dynamite, blasting caps and jugs upon jugs upon jugs of gunpowder. The things you want well away from the house because it might cause you to not have a house anymore. For the collector, you may find rusting drums filled with their least appealing specimens of crumbling carnotite. Or possibly jerrycans with waste from basement chemistry that never made it to household waste (or never could). But radiologically speaking, kinda boring. 


In the events that inspire this particular scenario, I was asked to clean out a deceased researcher’s office because, and I quote, “You have the most experience doing this other than me and I don’t have to do it because I’m your boss.” 

A non-exhaustive list of the things I found in this office:

  • A signed, live grenade
  • Oxidized beryllium metal special form parts
  • Various nuclear fuel pellets
  • Xmas lights hung & wrapped around det cord
  • Machined explosive as a paperweight
  • A can of Agent Orange
  • AND SO MUCH MORE!!!

Also, labeled chunks of fused glass from various nuclear tests. These were treasures they’d collected over a long career in national service, military and otherwise. As far as I know, most of the things in that office vanished into other people’s offices to enhance their collections. The explosives were disposed of…spectacularly.

I can only hope that when I pass my collections similarly leave someone wondering exactly how I accumulated all this and what stories does it all tell. Ideally, you should tell people what your collections mean to you, to educate others, before you die.

~fin~

P.S. – If you’ve ever wondered where the Coin Rants on the blog come from, that’s me using my coin collection for its real overarching purpose: to tell stories with. Here’s an example. I can tell a slice of history with pretty much every one of my coins. ;)

CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE – Surprise Positrons

For this scenario, count your blessings that they bothered to call you at all. SURPRISE ACCELERATOR is the worst kind of accelerator. I wish I could say this has never happened in my career. But you already knew this one existed. It’s the modification that’s the problem.

[The fourth in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

At the most basic level, an accelerator is a machine that makes charged particles go much faster. Everything beyond that is just getting fancy and going faster in highly esoteric ways. The machine doesn’t particularly care what particles you put in it; it just makes them go fast. Because your client isn’t technically inept, they were wise enough to make the changes that reversed the polarity to turn an electron accelerating machine into a positron accelerating one. Otherwise, it would’ve just thrown the positrons right back at the ion source. But it VERY MUCH MATTERS what’s at the business end of the accelerator. Because your beam line must come to an end and your fast particles are going to have to smack into something. Hopefully your intended target, but that’s why you build a backstop for the ones that miss. 
And because you’re working with positrons here, that means it’s time to worry about matter-antimatter annihilation radiation reactions. Your positron is going to go away and in its wake it’s going to give you two 511keV gamma photons moving in equal and opposite directions. But unless your research is on accelerator technology development, the whole point of having an accelerator is to make charged particles go fast to get nuclear reactions. The resulting gammas from the VERY short lived things in your target tend to be a lot more energetic than 511keV. If you’ve built your backstop and target cave right, they should take care of all those pesky annihilation gammas. The positron interactions in the ion sources and the accelerator are going to be a pittance of dose contribution compared to the x-rays from the accelerator itself. 
Of course, those are your intended reactions. If your accelerator is operating at a high enough energy, you can start causing incidental activation of materials, like those stainless steel screws slowly growing more and more Co-60 over time. If your accelerator was built with this in mind for the interactions from using electrons and now you’ve swapped to positrons, all your dose and activation calcs that you submitted for registration & permitting of the accelerator go out the window. Luckily, the different activations don’t deviate too badly from a safety point of view, but all the documentation is now wrongwrongWRONG. If your accelerator is licensed for isotope production, say radiopharmaceuticals, you just invalidated your permit to operate. That is, from a business point of view, extremely bad. But an accelerator that’s shut down until they can put it back the way it was so that it matches the paperwork again (they better be able to do that) or you can get new paperwork approved (may take months) is very safe indeed. 

Which brings us to the most important question several of you identified that you’ll be asking. “Where did you get a positron ion source large enough for this? Howwwwww???” If you’re lucky, it’s one you know about that they’ve installed into the accelerator. To have enough positrons to make a decent current ion source, you’re going to need an isotope with a half-life long enough to build with. Because there aren’t all that many positron emitters like that, this means your ion source is probably a big pile of Na-22. While Na-22 is a positron emitter with a ~2.5yr half-life that you can utilize, it is also a VERY potent gamma emitter, especially when you get enough of it together to think of it as a positron source instead. Usually, ion sources for accelerators just make a lot of soft (low energy) x-rays as you generate plasmas to throw down the line. Soft enough that the ion sources are typically self-shielding. This is *NOT* the case for a GBq Na-22 source. You need some lead, stat. Lots of it.

Also, as you may have noted Na-22 is sodium. Working with sodium is *messy*. Once you’ve finished building a lead cave for the ion source, it’s time to survey everything and everyone to determine exactly how much Na-22 they spread all over the place while building this. 
In the events that partially inspired this scenario, a researcher had a large Na-22 source as part of their lab’s inventory. But they were retiring and put out the word that they’d like to give this source and a lot of vacuum system gear away to a good home. This is the classic “If someone wants it, then it isn’t waste” gambit to avoid decon and disposal fees, but that’s a rant for another time. And so, a very large Na-22 source, in NaCl chemical form, showed up and got put in the extra beefy source safe. Even with the tungsten walls, counting experiments everywhere in the entire building began to show the fingerprint Na-22 gamma line. 

I’m happy to say that they called before trying to reconfigure the accelerator. This was because they were stymied trying to figure out a way to build the ion source safely. Their first attempt resulted in a contamination incident and everything got put away with a harrumph. But it’s cool, they’ve got a decade and change to figure it out before that source dies away too much to be useful. Also, they added a lot more lead around the safe to be better neighbors.

~fin~

CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE – Nuke Crabs

Since I used the word earlier today, “extended, unplanned deployment to an uninhabited island” is an excellent euphemismspeak for being marooned.

Luckily, you aren’t marooned. You’ve just been sent in on a zodiac raft to get samples while boss-type sips coffee back on the boat.

[The third in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

In an ideal world with infinite funding & space, you grab all these samples and more. Why limit yourself to mere coconuts when you can take an entire tree? Yes, I have seen a crate labeled “ONE [1] PALM TREE, ENIWETOK” before. Oh, how the money must have flowed in those days. But, no, you’re working as an afterthought in the Twilight of Big Science to do the monitoring of the sins of the past. You’re overhead, likely as part of a regulatory requirement or lawsuit settlement. Congratulations! You are the bare minimum good faith effort. 

Which is why you were sent to go grab a samples really quick. Because every minute you spend on the island is one that the boat is in the water and a crew has to be paid. As discussed earlier in the Navy base decon adventure, any work that is done on water adds a serious cost multiplier. If you’re of the frame of mind “The sooner I do this, the sooner I get to have beers”, then you don’t even need to hit the beach. Break off a piece of coral from the reef like a Kit Kat bar, put it in your cooler, and head back to the boat. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! 

Except you’re gonna want to be careful about that. Coral close enough to smash & grab from your zodiac is water shallow enough for the coral to sink it. So, you might be doing some snorkling to get to the boat-safe coral. Of course, you aren’t alone on the reef.

via GIPHY

As a sample, coral is pretty great for sampling and sequestering material as the reef slowly grows if there is persistent material in the lagoon for the polyps. But the reef is also continuously washed by the rest of the ocean, diluting that signal. If there isn’t a persistent, perceptible presence of material in the lagoon, there will be one season (The Event) in the coral skeleton you can detect and then nothing. This makes it look like the island is now clean when really it’s just that the reef is continuously flushed. Corals grow just like trees, marking the seasons with layers, but they’re really, incredibly slow by comparison. Which is one reason a lot of you winced at the idea of doing a smash & grab on the reef. You have good impulses. :) 

So, instead you make it past the reef without sinking or stealing any of it and hit the lovely white coral sand beach. For the next minimum effort sample, you can grab the sand right there by just reaching over the side of the zodiac, right? No, you’re a professional. You want a composite sample from the low to high tide line and above. The littoral zone of sand is constantly washed, just like the reef. You’ll want a sample from somewhat deeper in the sand. But sand sort of isn’t good at holding on to things. Or you might get very unlucky and sample way too thoroughly and get a chunk of the material that started the incident. When my parents had a pet store, we had to be careful about crushed coral/sand for saltwater aquariums lest you get some fish-killing WWII plane parts. SURPRISE! The composite will help average things out, but coral sand isn’t like clay for binding materials up.

So you look further up the beach and see the coconut palms, the dropped coconuts at the high tide line, and some very large shell-less hermit crabs between you and them. As a reminder, coconut crabs are these. They are the largest land arthropod in the world and have claws that *tear coconuts apart*. You can totally outrun one, but can you avoid the minefield of all of them? Do you dare steal their precious coconuts? 

Some of you remembered the bioaccumulation rule that each higher step of trophic layer = 10x concentration of materials of interest. So, while coconuts will be representative of the nutrients the palm is sucking up like a straw, the coconut crabs show the coconuts in aggregate. Most of the longer lived nuclides that would constitute the contamination you’re sampling for chemically behave like nutrients the palms would like and that the sand is very poor in. Palms absolutely soak Cs-137 out the sand to the point it’s almost bioremediation. This will show up in the coconuts and the crabs that eat them. Ideally, you’d get some coconuts directly from the palms as fresh samples, but unless you’re practiced at nutting a tree just grab the ones on the sand for least effort. 
If you are PARTICULARLY BRAVE, grab a smaller crab and hope you can get back to the boat before it destroys the box you put it in. To me, the efficiency of a crab as a environmental sample does not offset the terror of being trapped on a zodiac with an angry coconut crab. 

The events that inspired this scenario involves the Navy of a nation that rhymes with Beknighted Spates deciding that the best way to deal with radioactive waste on their vessels was to throw it overboard when they weren’t near any inhabited islands or fishing grounds. Of course, this didn’t stop things from floating so they did their very best to prevent that by having warrant officer with shotguns shoot at them until they sank. Sometimes that didn’t happen fast enough. It also made sure contamination spread. 
And so, a barrel of something ended up floating into a lagoon before sinking and coming to it’s final rest. The ocean doing as the ocean does, swiftly encased the barrel in marine concrete. But the release had happened, the beach contaminated, and the palms went to work. The sampling in this case was to assess impacts to nesting birds here. Do you know what nesting birds don’t like? People messing with their nests. After a bunch of razor sharp, leather glove destroying beak cuts and surprisingly painful wing slaps, the crabs were deemed safer. 

And this is how the nine-fingered researcher introduced me to the coconut crab that lived in his lab freezer. It cost a finger and a fair bit of blood to get those samples and he was proud of it even 20 years later. I would like to know that the crab took up more than half of his full size freezer.

His advice, “Coconuts only hurt if they fall on you.”

~fin~

CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE – Radio Shack

Well folks, you did it. You all have a future as remediation contractors. Go get yourself some licenses, equipment, and hire some workers that you, personally, absolutely never have to suit up do this work.

Oh wait, the money is thin. Welp, looks like you are.

[The second in an ongoing series of my compiled explainers for my CHOOSE YOUR OWN RADIATION ADVENTURE quizzes. There’s never really a right answer but some might work out better under the constraints of the scenario. It’s like poetry, really.]

 

This is a general case scenario. While many people jumped to the immediate conclusion that we’re discussing Hunter’s Point and Tetratech, I want to make it clear that this applies to pretty much every country with a navy. Some countries have had extra decades to be messy. There’s some qualities that make a given naval base nastier than others from a radiological point of view:

• Length of operation
• Diversity of operation
• Having a nuclear navy
• Onsite reactor
• Naval research lab 

So, you might think that this means that the UK’s yards at Portsmouth are the worst. Nah, they’re merely the UK’s oldest, continuously operating since [checks notes] the Third Crusade. Faslane, on the other hand, is likely more interesting for rad. Then, hooboy, there’s places like Murmansk. Thus, for radiological contamination issues around your naval base, you’re looking for a period of operation that spans roughly 1900-2000 for prime, extensive, and careless use/discarding of radioactive materials by 16-25 year olds wearing funny uniforms… and military contractors. And I only end that year range at 2000 because, GENERALLY SPEAKING, we’ve collectively stopped doing things like throwing waste barrels overboard while at sea and then sending bosuns out with shotguns to shoot them and make sure they sink. 

But back to the scenario.

You’ve been asked to make an important rad contamination find quickly and cheaply. You’ve been hired as a subcontractor because you know something about where to find stuff and the primary PM doesn’t. Hence the choices presented in this poll. You are damn near guaranteed to find rad contamination in ANY of the four choices I gave you. The question is which will give you employer the win they’re looking for, fast, without bankrupting/killing yourself. The easy choice, if you have a nuclear navy, is go check the mud below where you docked the rust buckets. Like looking for leaking fluids under your car in the garage.

The problem is that doing anything on the water add a minimum x5 cost multiplier. For pretty much everything. There’s an old sailor’s joke of :

Q: What’s the difference between that speaker and the marine one?
A: I paid 10x the price for the marine speaker before pouring a glass of saltwater in it.

Except now apply it to all your testing equipment. Oh, you need a boat. Maybe SCUBA gear too. This is also going to be our first encounter with the most serious problem in remediation. You’re looking for rad to clean up, but you’re also likely to find things you weren’t looking for. Things you’d hope weren’t there. Things that aren’t remotely documented. Like mines. That’s an extreme example but timeless terrors lay beneath the waves awaiting the unsuspecting and incautious. Like dioxin slicks, lost mercury ballast slowly turning into methylmercury, etc. You really shouldn’t go fishing here unless you’re doing biological sampling.  Eventually the primary will need to go decon the harbor, but that is a hugely, massively expensive project. That will come much later, if ever. Here, have my cranky thoughts about how we never finish anything.

Instead, rather than hitting the waves, you go for the nice clean munitions warehouses. Well, probably clean. You should ask some questions about them, starting with:

Q: What did you store in here?
A: Stuff. And things.

Yeah, it’s kinda goes like that. This is about as much detail as you’re going to get on your building history research from the navy. Have you ever noticed how large they are? Really, really big. Also, have you noticed that there’s a lot of them? Unless you hire a small army of a sampling and remediation crew, you’re going to spending a long time try to cover all of them. You missed the time milestone and are bankrupt. 

So, paydirt is the way to go and you head for the landfill instead. If there’s one thing you can count on the collective navies of the world to do, it is throw away things they shouldn’t. Because naval bases tend to be on the water, landfills sometimes are replaced by burn pits. Unfortunately, were back to the problem of when you go looking for something you find EVERYTHING. For every radium painted button from the old WWII USO projectionist’s booth burnt in 1950, you find two leaking drums of Agent Orange. So, you win but you really lose too. 

The place to go as a wise subcontractor for the cheap, fast win is to ask where the Radio Shop was. This may sound odd, but the term “Radio Shop” conceals the unbelievable mission creep that these spaces took on through the 20th century. Yes, at first, they took care of radios. This requires having a long historical perspective. The militaries of the world absolutely jumped on radio as the magic technology to clear up the fog of war as soon as they hit the scene. Radio was cutting edge and rapidly advancing technology. Wrangling the constantly changing tech and the ridiculous demands of ignorant superiors to make it all do the impossible…this may sound familiar to any network engineer. The denizens of the Radio Shop were some of the brightest, most technically savvy people on the entire base. 

As you fast forward through the decades, the Radio Shop is where everyone brings the Weird Shit™. Sometimes it’s to fix things because “Hey, you’re smart, nerd. I’ll get you some beer.” Like, you fixed the plane’s radio, can you fix the compass too? By which I mean, the compass that is ABSOLUTELY LOADED with radium. But sometimes it’s a special Secret Squirrel project from someone from a three letter agency. Sometimes it’s parts of a nuclear weapon headed overseas. Like network engineers, the Radio Shop will have a parts pile, their shelves full of “I might use that to fix something, someday.” And their own burn pit/trash hole because the work smarter, not harder maxim means they figured out that it was a easier to dig a hole behind the shop. The walls of the Radio Shop may be long gone but their radiological footprint will still be there. You will make will get the most bang for the buck here, probably a bonus for quick work, and now you can decide if you want to do anything more at this base. 

 

There is no inspiring specific incident to point to for this scenario I just walked you through other than ALL OF THEM, EVERYWHERE. This is why naval bases rarely get decommissioned, not entirely, usually because the chemical nightmares are so much worse.

I am not picking on navies because they are the worst. No base from any military branch is without sin. Some are cleaner than others but I think that’s probably more due to a lack of opportunity to be worse. Some branches (ahem, USAF) made up for lost time.

~fin~