During the last few days, the world has been closely following an apparently insignificant event that occurred in Australia: the loss of a small metal capsule of barely one cubic centimeter. However It was not the first time that a capsule was lost of this type of metal, and experience warned that the consequences could be tragic.
Possibly the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk has gained popularity in recent months for its location close to the front that the Russian invasion has opened in the country. Located in one of the Ukrainian regions claimed by Russia, the city once witnessed the consequences that the loss of a small capsule of Cesium-137 can bring: the Kramatorsk Radiological Incident.
The exact number of people who died as a result of this accident is unknown, which could have been between two and six, with 17 people affected throughout the 1980s due to high levels of radiation.
It all started a few years earlier, with the loss of a cesium-137 capsule. The capsule belonged to an instrument for calibrating levels that operated through emissions of radioactive cesium. The capsule was lost in a quarry in Karansk, in the Donetsk region. The protagonist capsule of this incident would be much more powerful than the one lost in Australia, with emissions that could have reached 50 gigabecquerels.
The effects of the capsule began to be noticed in 1980, in the city of Kramatorsk. It was in a family apartment located on the street now known as Mariia Prymachenko, in the east of the city.
In 1981, an 18-year-old girl died in the apartment as consequence of leukemia. Something that did not set off alarm bells even when her 16-year-old brother and their mother died a year later from the same cause. Doctors assumed a hereditary predisposition.
It wasn’t until a second family moved into the apartment that it was discovered what had happened. In 1987 another young man died from the same cause. His younger sister was also hospitalized for the same cause, leukemia. At this point the second family asked for a thorough assessment of the situation. The experts then detected that everything was due to radiation.
The capsule was emitting radiation equivalent to 1,800 roentgen/year. The investigation also found the capsule: it had been embedded in one of the walls of the apartment. The discovery of the capsule did not come until 1989nearly a decade after the cases began.
Radiological incidents like this are rare but varied. In Goiânia, Brazil, an abandoned medical unit at a disused hospital caused a chemical spill containing radioactive cesium. This time, not being confined in a solid capsule and after the machine was tampered with, the cesium spread through the environment, contaminating several hundred people and killing at least four.
Both the Kramatorsk incident and the Goiânia incident were due to the negligence with which those responsible acted of radioactive equipment. In the first case, since those responsible for the mine avoided ceasing their activity to focus on searching for the lost capsule. In Brazil, since the responsible company had gone bankrupt and considered leaving the radiological equipment behind.
The contrast between these two cases and the efforts of the Australian authorities is stark. A modicum of diligence is sometimes the only thing that stands between us from accidents like these.
Image | Cesium-137 capsule and homes in Kramatorsk in 2007. 2×910 / Artemka, CC BY-SA 4.0
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