If we told you there was a leak of radioactive material in your basement, you’d get the hell out of that house. You’d probably get the hell out of that town. We’ve learned the hard way that you have to respect anything that upsets a Geiger counter.
But some people are, let’s just say, a little more casual around nuclear material than the rest of us. And by “people” we mean governments, corporations and just random, everyday dumbasses. They have combined to give us a lot of ridiculous/terrifying stories, like the time …
#6. A Radioactive Core Was Left Unguarded and Contaminated an Entire Community
The first thing you have to know is that highly radioactive material isn’t just found in heavily fortified power plants and nuclear missile silos. A lot of the stuff is kind of just laying around.
For instance, the Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia (IGR) was a radiotherapy clinic in Goiania, Brazil, that had relocated to a new facility in the mid-1980s, leaving behind an abandoned building full of medical equipment. As one might guess, all of those machines were tempting targets for thieves, particularly because of the value of the scrap metal that could be harvested from them (metal is such a high theft item pretty much everywhere in the world that it suggests the existence of an underworld boss who is a cross between Wesley Snipes in New Jack City and Shaq in Steel). One of the machines in question was, appropriately, a radiotherapy device with a caesium-137 core.
“Anyone fancy a round of cancer roulette?”
Now for those of you who don’t know or haven’t already guessed, caesium-137 is radioactive as balls. Remember that, because it comes up later.
The hospital had hired minimal security to try and keep people away, because somehow the removal of the potentially hazardous equipment was tied up in litigation. However, one day the guard called in sick to catch a showing of Herbie Goes Bananas, which proved to be the chink in the armor of their bulletproof anti-theft initiative.
Huh. Well, this is certainly a film that exists.
Two scavengers named Roberto dos Santos Alves and Wagner Mota Pereira saw their opportunity and swooped in to steal whatever they could carry. “Whatever they could carry,” as you can guess, turned out to be the caesium-137 radiotherapy unit, which they brought back home and promptly tore open like a Christmas present.
They removed the core and smashed it open, finding a blue glowing substance inside that mystified them. This was the caesium, and predictably, it poisoned the everloving shit out of both men, eventually causing internal damage, contact burns and the need for amputation. Luckily, they were able to take the exposed core to a scrapyard before any of that happened.
“Hey look, that girl could look after it for a while. Pass her a 20. We’re creating jobs here.”
From the scrapyard, things only got worse. No one knew what the glowing substance was, outside of maybe Predator blood, so no one felt the need to handle it with anything resembling caution. The junkyard owner wanted to make a ring for his wife out of it, several people smeared it on their bodies like paint and a 6-year-old girl even wound up eating some of it, because that’s what you do with a glowing blue mystery from a garbage dump.
Finally, after numerous people started getting frighteningly sick all at the same time, a local woman collected the substance and took it to a hospital to be examined, rightly suspecting that perhaps the fantastic powder of dreams was to blame. A visiting physicist detected the danger almost immediately.
All told, 250 people had been contaminated by the exposed material, four of whom received fatal doses and died. The people in charge of IGR were charged with criminal negligence for leaving the caesium unit essentially unguarded in a derelict building.
#5. A Waste Company Forgot to Plug a Hole in Their Radioactive Truck
In March of 2002, a piece of cancer treatment machinery broke down at a hospital in Leeds, England. Because of the presence of radioactive material (and because those needy cancer patients wouldn’t quit their bitching), it was decided that the machine was to be sent to a nuclear facility 130 miles away to be disposed of properly, because step one in disposing of wildly hazardous material is to parade it across the entire countryside.
There’s very little to do in northern England at the best of times.
A nuclear waste transport company, AEA Technology, was then commissioned to take it away. The machinery was put in a sealed container, driven 130 miles north, and unloaded at the nuclear disposal site of Sellafield on the Irish Sea to be dealt with by professionals. When the truck arrived, the receiving crew prepared to unload the container, only to find a nice little surprise — the container wasn’t sealed at all.
A plug to seal the radioactive machine in was somehow left off, and as a result, 130 miles of highway had been exposed to 100 to 1,000 times what is deemed a “very high” amount of gamma radiation.
“I wouldn’t mind my sperm dying if their screams didn’t block out the radio.”
After the cleanup, the crown court in Leeds said it was “pure good fortune” than no one was harmed or gained superpowers from the leak. Also written off as “lucky” was the fact that the leak was angled toward the ground, focusing the gamma radiation into what real, actual experts referred to as “a beam of radioactivity” directly into the earth. This was seen as better than if the “beam” had been pointing upward, where people’s faces live.
We dare you to try and fuck with all the science in that statement.
Evidently deciding to roll the dice on flesh-eating mutant earthworms, British officials determined that AEA was indeed guilty of a colossal boner, but essentially called it a win since nobody melted. Because of the carelessness, AEA was eventually fined about a half a million dollars for making the English countryside glow in the dark.
#4. Radioactive Material Was Added to All Sorts of Consumer Goods
Once everyone realized the sheer power of atomic energy, companies went a little nuts trying to shoehorn it into everyday life, the logic being that every activity could be made better and more efficient by the presence of spine-fusing radiation. For example, one of them came up with the idea to irradiate golf balls with cobalt-60, so that if you lost one in the rough somewhere, it could be located. With a Geiger counter.
Ladies and gentlemen, behold the greatest idea of all time.
Numerous advertisements were run for radioactive golf balls, with some even claiming that they would travel farther than regular balls (you may notice that by all accounts, this does not make sense). While the golf balls were not dangerous to humans unless they had constant exposure to them (like if you carried them around in your pocket all day on the golf course, but luckily nobody does that), the same can’t be said for the atomic pacemaker.
Yep. Amazingly, doctors during the 1970s thought placing mini plutonium batteries in people’s chests was a good thing. Gamma rays escaping the pacemaker would slightly irradiate the patient every year, and the U.S. government deems them such a hazard that when any person with a plutonium pacemaker dies, it has to be immediately removed and taken straight to the Los Alamos nuclear facility for destruction.
And then the body shot in the head as a preemptive measure.
And then there was nuclear makeup.
“Wow, those tumors really set off your cheekbones!”
During the early 20th century, the London based company Radior Co. specialized in radium-enriched cosmetics such as talcum powder, face powder, vanishing cream, soap and numerous other things women applied to their faces every day. After this company unsettlingly just disappeared around the 1920s, France picked up the nuclear baton with Tho-Radia products, which included all the powders and soaps from before while tossing lipstick into the mix.
Most people believed low radioactivity could kill germs, and while this is technically true, it is ignoring the larger truth that radioactivity kills everything. After taking an embarrassingly long time to figure this out, production was halted on radium-instilled beauty creams.
Fellas, there’s a reason she’s glowing, and it’s not luminous beauty.
Understandably, the focus switched from painting your face with radioactive isotopes to painting your house with them, because houses don’t get cancer. For example, after the Fukishima disaster in 2011, scientists combing Tokyo for radioactivity found alarming levels coming from an old woman’s house. Inside, they found the source to be some old luminescent paint bottles in her basement, which were giving her the radioactive equivalent of a CAT scan every hour of every day. The paint was quickly disposed of, but because it was regularly produced, and because this is Japan, there may be tons more of it out there.
#3. The U.S. Government Shot at Toxic Waste Barrels to Make Them Go Away
As discussed above, sometimes we simply can’t figure out what to do with nuclear waste, at least not anything that could be in any way considered “wise” or “safe.” In the 1950s, the U.S. Navy decided to quit pussyfooting around with all of that nonsense and dumped barrels of waste off the coast of San Francisco. The problem is that sometimes the barrels tend to want to float, which is bad news, so they shot cannons at them until they sank.
“They’ve got a big target symbol on them, right?”
The waste included scores of dead animals experimented on by nuclear research facilities and 55-gallon drums of radioactive mystery. Representatives from the Atomic Energy Commission would occasionally drop by to review the amount of radioactivity on the ships to determine whether or not they should be cleaned before taking on another toxic load, because apparently that makes a fucking difference. Today the government estimates about 48,000 barrels of waste were dumped in the bay, but gallantly refuses to provide any kind of documentation as to what, specifically, that waste might be.
“We shot up all the paperwork, too. Our pens were out of ink.”
Similarly, at a disposal site in Idaho, buried nuclear waste containers would sometimes be exhumed by flooding, bobbing to the surface and challenging the long-held national belief that when you bury things or toss them into the sea, they cease to exist. Naturally, the government’s response to the newly unearthed sludge was to break out the firearms and shoot at it until it sank again.
“Just take out everything above sea level.”
Then they realized the water in the area was now contaminated (“But how, damn it?”), so the topic of removing the waste altogether is currently being fiercely debated to the tune of millions of dollars in litigation.
#2. A Guy Tried to Build a Nuclear Reactor in His Kitchen
Richard Handl is a Swedish man who wanted to see if he could build a nuclear reactor in his own home, perhaps because he thought he’d never have to pay an electricity bill again. It’s called being proactive, people!
In 2011, Handl began his strictly amateur plans to split the atom in the precise manner that a person with no business splitting the atom would — he went online and ordered radioactive material on eBay. He bid on a strange combination of items, including smoke detectors, glowing watch hands and some straight-up uranium (the seller of which couldn’t recall where it had come from). In one of his experiments, he started cooking americium, beryllium and radium in sulfuric acid on the stove to see if he could cause a nuclear reaction. Stunningly, the concoction exploded in his face.
We are at a loss as to how this could have possibly failed.
Eventually, Handl began to worry that experiments intended to split the atom to pass the time might not be legal, which is typically a concern you address before anything explodes. So he did what anyone would do and called the police to check. Not wanting to trivialize his scientific pursuits, the police told him what he was doing was “pretty stupid” and immediately detained him to inspect his apartment for radioactivity.
Which took a while because uranium marbles goddamn.
When directly questioned about the safety of unleashing radiation in his home, Handl dismissively pointed out that he had a Geiger counter, which suggests that he doesn’t fully understand exactly what a Geiger counter does. Regardless, the police determined that his house was clean and he was quickly released from custody. Handl shut down the blog that he had been keeping on his experiments and claimed he would be moving on to purely theoretical nuclear physics.
And radioactive-based lock-picking services.
#1. The U.S. Government Unleashed Radioactive Clouds in Populated Areas. For Science.
During World War II, the U.S. was scrambling to become the first and only member of the nuclear arms club. But as the years wore on, the Americans began to fear that other countries, in particular the Soviet Union, might have used their communism powers to scrape together their own nuclear program.
The only question was figuring out a way to confirm it. The U.S. reasoned that if the Soviets had reactors, they would emit enough radiation to create a radioactive cloud. Therefore, all they had to do was look for these clouds to find any secret reactors the USSR was hiding.
No reactors here. Just the Earth burning down two blunts.
To test their measuring instruments, government scientists naturally decided to create their own radioactive clouds, which they did in the Pacific Northwest, in a place called Hanford, Washington, in 1944. Without telling anyone.
It didn’t stop there. Later on in the war, the government seized the whole town and gave its residents 30 days to pack up and leave. The town’s population was replaced with engineers and scientists, forming an arm of the Manhattan Project. Starting in 1944, over the next three years the Hanford nuclear plant released huge amounts of radioactive particles into the air, something in the neighborhood of hundreds of thousands of curies of iodine-131 (to compare, about 15 curies of iodine-131 were released during the Three Mile Island core meltdown).
Where the Old West greets the new facial tumors.
Then came Operation Green Run. In December of 1949, the government took the filters in the stacks at the weapons plant in Hanford and just shut them the fuck off, releasing thousands more curies of radioactive material directly into the atmosphere and daring future Americans to even try to guess what the hell they thought this would accomplish.
But at least they tried to get rid of some of the waste material by feeding it to the sheep, for fuck’s sake.
When all this was declassified decades later, the people potentially affected by this radiation festival included not only the residents around Hanford in Washington but also folks in Idaho and Oregon, because clouds tend to move when anything resembling wind touches them. To top it all off, neither the exact number of test clouds released nor the identity of the person or people who authorized them are known for certain, which we feel just adds to the charm of being secretly irradiated.
Never be too concerned about enemy powers when your own government can mess you up twice as bad.