After the recent fiasco in Western Australia involving a missing -and now found- eight millimetre radioactive capsule containing Caesium-137, I couldn’t help but wonder if something like this has happened before. Because history does enjoy repeating itself and we often don’t learn from our mistakes. And lo’ and behold, it has happened before… more times than I’m personally comfortable with (I’d prefer it happened a total of zero times). But one case in particular stood out from the others as being especially disturbing since it affected normal everyday people, just like you and me, for nearly a decade before anyone found out what was actually going on.
In the Shadows of Chernobyl
We’ve all heard of the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. We’ve all watched videos on YouTube of people exploring the ruins of Pripyat, a city that 50,000 people used to call home. It was the single worst nuclear disaster in the history of humankind, so it’s no wonder the media focused on this incident more than smaller radiological incidents that might have occurred during the late 80s and early 90s. Which is why you probably haven’t heard of the Kramatorsk Radiological Accident that took place in the city of Kramatorsk in the Ukrainian SSR between 1981 and 1989. While Chernobyl went up in a literal bang, the Kramatorsk accident was a silent killer hidden away completely undetected in the walls of an apartment complex.
In 1981 a family consisting of a mother and her two daughters moved into unit 85 (Building 7) of a newly constructed panel apartment complex on Gvardeytsev-Kantemirovtsev Street (now Maria Pryimachenko Street) in Kramatorsk, Donetsk region, Ukrainian SSR. That year the eldest, an 18-year-old girl, passed away. In 1982 her 16-year-old brother died, followed shortly after by the death of their mother. Around the same time, neighbours of unit 85 were experiencing acute illness. When another family was given unit 85, their teenage son also died (some sources refer to him as a child). Each of the deaths were attributed to leukaemia, but no further investigation took place and doctors assumed it was an unlucky genetic occurrence. However, since these panel apartment units were typically allocated to younger people, the high morality rate was nothing short of suspicious.
While gossip attributed the deaths to a ‘cursed apartment’, the father of the second family knew something was going on with the building itself and petitioned for a full investigation. Finally in 1989 radiologists entered unit 85 to take air samples and radiation measurements. Before opening the unit’s front door the measurements were already shockingly higher than normal. A stronger measuring device was required to calculate the radiation levels being emitted from the apartment, which was acquired through the Headquarters of Civil Defense. When the radiology team entered the bedroom of the son that had recently passed, the levels were higher than everywhere else in the building and clocked in at a horrifying 200 roentgens per hour (r/h) (a dose over 400 r/h is considered deadly). The highest levels were coming from the wall next to his bed.
Radiologist and physician Nikolai Savchenko, who was present during the inspection of the Kramatorsk apartment, described the immediate precautions taken to safely remove the contaminated wall:
… in order to cut out part of the wall, lead plates were nailed to its area with a radiation source to protect workers. The driver of the sand truck was also shielded with lead plates and an apron, and the truck took the dangerous cargo to the factory laboratory, from where it was taken by specialists from the Kyiv Institute for Nuclear Research. Before and after the work of the builders in the apartment, we took swabs to exclude the version of the presence of radioactive powder. There was no such thing – everything was clean. The gamma background in the apartments has become the same as on the street.Nikolai Savchenko in VP’s ‘Chernobyl in the wall of a panel house‘ from 2003
Upon examining the contaminated wall in the laboratory, an 8mm by 4mm capsule containing the radioactive isotope Caesium-137 (the same material stored in the formerly missing capsule in Western Australia) was discovered imbedded in the concrete. The registration number on the capsule led investigators to its original location, and slowly but surely a picture was painted of how the small but deadly capsule found its way into the wall of a residential apartment complex in Kramatorsk.
From Karansky to Kramatorsk: The Journey of a Radioactive Capsule
Sometime during the late 1970s, workers at the Karansky Quarry in the Donetsk region lost a capsule containing the radioactive substance caesium-137, which had been used in a radioisotope level gauge for a measuring device. After a less than satisfactory search, management was told that nothing was found and any effort to locate the capsule quickly ceased. There wasn’t time available to continue the search, according to the Chornobyl R&D Institute, since added pressure was being put on the quarry workers during the lead up to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. The need to show the world that the Soviet Union “care[d] about the Soviet man” by building “modern comfortable housing” led to the capsule being shipped, undetected, from Karansky Quarry to Kramatorsk where construction on the apartment complex was underway. Without anyone realising it, the ‘cursed’ wall of unit 85 was built, complete with its own radioactive capsule. Nothing says “we love our people and want the best for them” as much as slowly exposing them to critical radiation levels.
In the report on Nuclear and Radiation Safety in the Ukraine from 2012, the Kramatorsk Radiological Accident was blamed on “the failure of accounting and control of radioactive sources, violations of physical protection of radioactive sources and low level safety culture in the company.”
There were rumours later on that the shipment of crushed stone containing the lost capsule was initially meant to go to Moscow for construction of Olympic facilities. If that had occurred we might be talking about this particular caesium-137 incident in the same breath as Chernobyl more often.
Aftermath and Justified Paranoia
Following the removal of the infected wall, levels returned to normal and radiologists gave the apartment the all clear. However, residents were still rightfully wary of possible contamination in their own apartments. If the issue in unit 85 had gone undetected for nearly a decade, how could they possibly feel safe in their own homes? And with the addition of Chernobyl only a few years earlier, the increased fear of radiation exposure was more than justified. Was the furniture infected? What about curtains? Clothes? Lacking knowledge of radiation, the residents were afraid that pretty much anything could be contaminated. And so a meeting was held in March 1990 with the residents and specialists from the Kharkov Institute of Medical Radiology and the All-Union Scientific Center for Radiation Medicine where the residents demanded their apartments be fully examined and that adequate medical assistance be provided.
According to Savchenko:
…the meeting was held in a tense atmosphere and it was not possible to completely dispel the distrust of the residents in the result of the research… The meeting was very tragic. — Angry cries, tears — all this was understandable.Nikolai Savchenko in VP’s ‘Chernobyl in the wall of a panel house‘ from 2003
In total, 17 residents received high doses of radiation. These 17 individuals were considered ‘disabled’ and were granted the same status as ‘Chernobyl victims’, which provided certain medical benefits. However, this was cancelled by 1993. The names of the four victims that died from leukaemia caused by the cesium-137 capsule do not appear to be available online, nor any information regarding their families. And unfortunately, these instances continued. Savchenko recalls:
Last year , there were about eight “radiation situations” in the Donetsk region: the delivery of radioactive substances with metal to factories, the last one at the end of February. Two or three years ago on Belenkaya, in the inspection hole of the garage of one of the houses, a lead container with an isotope was found. The radiation power was 176,000 mcr/h! As it turned out later, the container disappeared 6 years ago at one of the mines. And here is a recent case that occurred in March last year. In one of the warehouses in Karlo-Libknekhtovsk near Artemovsk, they found a box with isotopes that were not accounted for anywhere. Already this year, an isotope with a radiation power of over 1,000 mcr/h hit the Donetsk Metallurgical Plant with scrap metal. There was also such a case of delivery at the Azovstal plant.Nikolai Savchenko in VP’s ‘Chernobyl in the wall of a panel house‘ from 2003
And if you’re thinking “this type of thing wouldn’t happen where I live”, think again! People are mishandling and being exposed to Caesium-137 all over the world. Here’s a list to keep you up at night:
- Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil (1987)
- Four people died and a number of others were seriously injured when glowing caesium salt from radiation therapy system found in an abandoned clinic was sold to random buyers.
- Georgia (1997)
- A caesium-137 pellet was found in a shared jacket that gave Georgian soldiers radiation poisoning and burns.
- Los Barrios, Cádiz, Spain (1998)
- The recycling company Acerinox accidentally melted down radioactive caesium-137 from a gamma-ray generator. A radioactive cloud was released (which failed to be detected) until traces were found in France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria.
- Tongchuan, Shaanxi, China (2009)
- Caesium-137 was accidentally mixed in with eight truckloads of scrap metal and delivered to a mill where it was melted down into steel because a Chinese cement company failed to follow protocol for dealing with radioactive materials.
- University of Tromsø, Norway (2015)
- Eight radioactive samples, including caesium-137, were lost when moved out of a secure location for educational purposes. They were never returned and are still missing.
- Helsinki, Finland (2016)
- High levels of caesium-137 detected in the air in Helsinki was traced back to a building operated by Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority and a radioactive waste treatment company.
- Seattle, Washington, United States (2019)
- Thirteen people were exposed to caesium-137 when the powder was spilled during transfer from a lab to a truck. The building was evacuated and eight of the thirteen people were hospitalised.
- Western Australia (2023)
- An 8mm capsule containing caesium-137 fell off a truck in Western Australia and a search was launched by the State Government. It was found a week later on 1 February 2023.
These are only known Caesium-137 related incidents. If you really want to be scared, here’s a little light reading on all nuclear and radiation accidents courtesy of Wikipedia.
So what’s the moral of this story? Have radiation levels measured in your new home before you move in? Don’t sleep directly next to a wall? Live your life in a constant state of paranoia that a small radioactive capsule could be literally anywhere near you? Unfortunately, all you can really do is pray to your deity of choice that a random person in a random factory or quarry didn’t randomly make an incredibly stupid mistake when dealing with radioactive materials. Human error is truly scarier than any ghost story.
Sources and Additional Reading
Chornobyl R&D Institute – Man-made radiation can kill entire families
Firstpost – A radioactive capsule smaller than a human nail is lost in Australia. Here’s why it’s deadly and creating alarm (2023)
Makarovska, Olga. “Overview of Radiological Accidents Involving Orphan Radioactive Sources of Ionizing Radiation Worldwide” (PDF). Security and Nonproliferation: 2(8): 23–24 (Kyiv 2005).
Report on Nuclear and Radiation Safety in Ukraine (2012)
Siberian Regional Union – Chronology of Radiation Accidents
VP – Chernobyl in the wall of a panel house (2003)
Wikipedia – Caesium-137 / Kramatorsk / Nuclear and radiation accidents and incidents