The Secret Nuclear Mishaps That Aren't Causing Alarm

Scientists in one case ended up breathing in uranium due to 'several grievous errors'
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 28, 2017 10:45 AM CDT

(Newser) – For the past year, the Center for Public Integrity has been investigating nuclear negligence in the US, finding weaknesses that led to avoidable accidents and looking at the resulting repercussions—or lack of them. As part of that probe, Scientific American publishes a look at one such federal investigation into how nearly 100 researchers who gathered at a Nevada center in 2014 made "several grievous errors" while conducting a supposedly safe nuclear-pulse experiment with a machine called Godiva. Their carelessness led to them unknowingly breathing in radioactive uranium, which they didn't discover until months later. The report details the pressure scientists were under to complete their work at the National Criticality Experiments Research Center, how a protective cover failed to be reinstalled during a product reassembly in 2012, and how one particular decision turned out to be a risky one.

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That decision: to turn off annoying radioactivity-detecting alarms that kept going off as Godiva emitted its bursts. The scientists didn't realize that by shutting off the alarms, they were also closing off ventilation systems and air filters. While the doses they inhaled weren't especially high—at worst, the equivalent of 13 chest X-rays—they're enough to pose an added cancer risk for the scientists. Scientific American details how the first researcher discovered, on his own during routine testing two months later, that his health was at his risk, as well as the "shroud of official secrecy" that sheltered the experiment itself as well as the mishap that had occurred at the test site. The report also documents how financial penalties apparently weren't harsh enough to force major changes. More on the debacle here. (Did a uranium mine sicken a remote village in Kazakhstan?)

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