Nasa / Space

Geek Trivia: Overdose of tragedy

What was the highest dosage of radiation ever suffered by a human being from a conventional nuclear accident -- the highest lethal rem count ever inflicted outside the detonation of a nuclear weapon?

For those of you interested in the various scales that quantify major disasters, we have a new entry for you: The International Nuclear Events Scale. The INES is an eight-point (0 to 7) numeric scale developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency for communicating the level of danger represented by a nuclear accident, designed so international authorities can comprehend and respond to the threat quickly, appropriately, and effectively.

Before we go any further, this is not the oft-misquoted list of buzzwords such as Bent Spear and Broken Arrow that show up in oh-so-many Hollywood movies, though such terms do have some basis in reality. Those are code phrases used by the U.S. military to describe incidents involving nuclear weaponry, while the INES is a civilian system used to describe events involving non-weaponized nuclear systems and materials.

Put another way, Broken Arrow refers to a missing nuclear bomb. INES Level 7 refers to a nuclear reactor meltdown.

An INES Level 0 event represents absolutely no danger to anyone or anything, but it was at least enough of a hiccup that the incident observer felt it worth reporting to international authorities. Think of it as the nuclear equivalent of the Check Engine light in your car.

In contrast, the poster child for an INES Level 7 event -- and the only example of the worst possible INES rating -- is the Chernobyl disaster, rated by most authorities as the most lethal and dangerous nuclear event in human history, short of those that actually involved nuclear weapons.

This is not to say that the Chernobyl disaster released the greatest volume or intensity of radiation ever to result from a nuclear accident. The lethality of the Chernobyl accident is largely attributable to the fact that it released radioactive fallout into open air.

Winds then carried that fallout over a devastatingly large area. This wind-borne fallout exposed millions of innocent bystanders to increased cancer risks, and it rendered an entire city uninhabitable for the next few thousand years.

Still, the highest dose any single individual received from the Chernobyl disaster was an estimated 1,600 rems -- definitively lethal but far from the record dose suffered by a human accident victim.

WHAT HUMAN BEING SUFFERED THE HIGHEST ACCIDENTAL NUCLEAR RADIATION EXPOSURE IN HISTORY?

Get the answer.

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

27 comments
RGuernsey
RGuernsey

...why didn't they kill him? No human should have to endure that. http://www.fas.org/sgp/othergov/doe/lanl/pubs/00326644.pdf The symptoms Kelley displayed at the plutonium-processing facility, characterzed by collapse and mental incapacitation, were the first stage of his clinical course (what is now know as the most severe form of acute radiation syndrome). The second stage began when he arrived in the emergency room of the Los Alamos Medical Center. It was dire. Kelley was semiconscious, retching, vomiting, and hyperventilating. His skin was cold and dusky reddish-violet, and his lips had a bluish color that indicated poorly oxygenated blood. He was immediately wrapped in blankets and surrounded by hot water bottles. His blood pressure and pulse were at first unobtainable. He had shaking chills, and the uncontroled movement of his extremities and torso necessitated restraint by the nursing staff. Kelley?s anxiety and restlessness were eased only by Demerol. After about ten minutes, the nurses were able to measure Kelley?s pulse (160 beats per minute) and his blood pressure (80/40). His body emitted a small but measureable amount of gamma rays, and his vomit and feces were sufficiently radioactive to give a positive reading on the detector.

bornagaingeek
bornagaingeek

What about the Therac-25? Some of the doses accidentally administered were estimated in the 25,000 rad range.

RealGem
RealGem

Actually, I'm pretty sure that Bruce Banner received the worst dose!! :D

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

Having worked in the nuclear power industry in the past as a Health Physics Monitor, the horror stories were related to us in training. The Sl-1 and Los Alamos events were some of the examples provided to us in class. I experienced on event that involved a single cobalt-60 pellet that became lodged in the grating of a bridge over an open pool work area. Unskilled engineers were removing lead bricks and other items from a pool area where the pellets were shuttled in and out of the core. One of the containers broke, scattering the irradiated pellets all over the floor of the pool area. This was under 28 feet of water and the area needed to be cleaned before placing a stainless steel liner in the pool to stop water leaking through the concrete. While one worker was told to be sure and notify the monitor before removing anything from the water, this guy just yanked it out and set off source monitors throughout the entire building. After evacuating the fuel floor I had the unpleasant job of trying to locate the source. As soon as I reached the floor, the detector I was using(Teletector, detector on a telescoping thirty foot pole) and it went off scale at over 100,000 RAD. Needless to say I had to grab some lead blankets to sheild the detector in order to get directional readings and sheild myself too. After locating the source and using a high pressure water hose to wash the bridge, the pellet fell back in the water and things returned to normal. My exposure was less than 100 millirad and I was relieved that no one received anything over their daily allowed exposure of 300 millirad. Needless to say, that engineer was sent back to his desk job and cleanup proceeded normally.

Jaqui
Jaqui

so we can dust the whole planet with it, kill off most life completely. mmm thinking about that is almost orgasmic.

seanferd
seanferd

where they buried the guy's head separately, for some reason? And yeah, I was thinking SL-1, but I've done no fact-checking.

iheatseekeri
iheatseekeri

Although I don't know if it ever said how many rems he got, I think it's safe to say Dr. Robert Bruce Banner got quite the dosage of gamma radiation. And you don't want to make him mad.

chancea
chancea

I always heard that "Broken Arrow" meant a damaged nuclear weapon (the movie got it wrong), while "Empty Quiver" was the term for a missing nuke. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Bill Ward
Bill Ward

Jay, I'm going to give you this one, because the only other incident that I know of that can compare (and surpasses TOTAL dose, by a long shot) killed the three men involved from physical/heat/steam injuries before the actual radiation killed them; their corpses received far higher dosages, but they were dead before the exposure got as high. On January 3, 1961, Army Specialists John A. Byrnes and Richard L. McKinley and Navy Electrician's Mate Richard C. Legg were killed at Idaho Falls, Idaho, in the SL-1 incident. Byrnes' body was not found and recovered until January 7th. During that time, it was pinned by one of the control rods directly over the open, exposed, and critical runaway reactor core; at the stairs leading to the door to the Reactor room, the AN/PDR-27 was reading off scale-High on a scale that adjusted to 500R/hour. In the reactor compartment, the flux must have been in excess of 800R/hour as a very conservative guess; it's possible that in the position the his body was pinned, it received well in excess of 2000R/hour; since Byrnes' body was not recovered for over 65 hours, his dosage (if he had survived being impaled by the control rod) would have been in excess of 30,000 REM, as a very conservative number, and possibly as high as 150-200,000 REM. I'll close it with your catch phrase: that's not just trivia, it's Geek Trivia.

mitre345
mitre345

In the Army "Broken Arrow" meant that hostile forces were overrunning your position. When you used that code phrase it meant all allied aircraft and forces available were to respond to help.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

However a Geek may not.

Bill Ward
Bill Ward

At that time, it was not known to be absolutely fatal to absorb that much radiation; regardless, the fact that was that what little data did exist was sparse; for scientific reasons, they needed to do whatever they could to keep him alive (and possibly "cure him", though we now know that wasn't possible) so they could learn as much as possible. The man was a scientist, after all; this was directly applicable research.

Altotus
Altotus

What about the villagers in Brazil that opened a machete and found the cesium? And what happened in Idaho that was a high dose too?

seanferd
seanferd

but you still need to drop it from a plane. With flowers. O avatar of Shiva! Dance!

Bloggr44
Bloggr44

When I was going to Nuke school in the Arco desert in Idaho, we used to drive by the site of SL-1 every day... Ahh, the good old days! A quick look at the facts here makes me think you are wrong that "Sl-1 Beats Los Alamos". As the Geek Trivia article says, we're talking about instantaneous 5 digit REM exposure in the case of Los Alamos, and for the guys who lived through the explosion -- and the guys who "rescued" the survivors, we're talking about exposures more in the 500 REM/hour range. And the last of the survivors of the explosion was removed from the blast site less than 2 hours after the explosion (9pm to 1030pm). Of course, the burst radiation from the prompt criticality that caused the steam blast that caused the lifting of the reactor lid and radioactive steam may have been high instantanously - but I'm guessing nowhere near as high as what was generated in the test tube at Los Alamos. Remember -- this was, until the control rod was lifted too high -- a controlled reaction as opposed to an uncontrolled reaction. Without weighing through all the data collected in SL-1 and Los Alamos, I'd bet it's not quite a "hands down" win. A much bigger bang instead of a flash though, I'll give you that.

Bizzo
Bizzo

He's exactly who came to mind. But I thought his first name was David?

briany
briany

Broken Arrow refers to: 1) an accidental event that involves nuclear weapons or nuclear components but which does not create the risk of nuclear war. 2) the United States code for calling in all available aircraft for an airstrike. Empty Quiver refers to the seizure, theft, or loss of a nuclear weapon or nuclear component. This is according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_military_nuclear_incident_terminology

Bill Ward
Bill Ward

I have to self quibble; I've confused myself in my memory; while Byrnes' body was DISCOVERED at about 3 PM on the 7th, because of the position, it wasn't actually recovered until the 9th, according to a source that I checked; it's been too long since the lectures on SL-1 (as I long ago mentioned in my Bio, I used to be a Radiological Control Monitor, and it was covered in the training). I had forgotten the delay while they worked out the procedure and got volunteers to help recover the third body. For someone who asked, yes, the heads of the the three men were buried seperately; the gravesites of all three men are also still fairly high radiation sources to this day, even through the lead lined caskets, thick concrete vaults and concrete toppers, over forty years later. It's low enough not to be a short term danger, but high enough that you don't want to linger while paying your respects.

glgruver
glgruver

A Canadian Physicist who died of Radiation Poisoning back in 1945. I do not recall the details, but I seem to recall the process took several days. I cannot recall the estimated radiation dosage he received. Also, since I am at work right now, I cannot readily access certain websites that could refresh my memory with more detailed information about this accident.

ken.meyerkorth
ken.meyerkorth

Isnt that what happens when you awaken in extreme pain from rolling over while dreaming of hot HR secretary whipping you with a mouse cord while wearing a tight leather bikini?!?! Or is that just me?

tchristman
tchristman

Having lived in Idaho Falls for 10 years and next door to one of the first responders to the incident, the rumor that this was a murder/suicide still purists to this day. Supposedly the guy raising the rods in the reactor was the jealous husband and one of his co-workers was being too friendly with his wife. Who knows, the answers are buried in the desert in Idaho.

seanferd
seanferd

TV show and original comic books.

GoodOh
GoodOh

I can see why they chose the 'Broken Arrow' line for the movie title. Empty Quiver sounds like something a lonely teenage girl experiences when wishing for a beau. Never let a fact stand in the way of the movies. Just in case any of you doubted it after watching too many Hollywood fictions, the US did not win WWII single-handed either (e.g. U-33 was captured in May 1941 - before the US entered the war - the movie industry insults your intelligence every day - let them know you don't appreciate it)

GNX
GNX

I live this dream every day when I repair the Design Dept's PC's