Scores of ring seals have washed up on Alaska’s Arctic coastline since July, suffering or killed by a mysterious disease marked by bleeding lesions on the hind flippers, irritated skin around the nose and eyes and patchy hair loss on the animals’ fur coats. More…
The Church Rock Uranium Mill Spill occurred in New Mexico, USA, in 1979 when United Nuclear Corporation‘s Church Rock uranium mill tailings disposal pond breached its dam. Over 1,000 tons of radioactive mill waste and millions of gallons of mine effluent flowed into the Puerco River. Local residents used river water for irrigation and livestock and were not immediately aware of the toxic danger. In terms of the amount of radiation released the accident was comparable in magnitude to the Three Mile Island accident of the same year and has been reported as the largest radioactive accident in U.S. History.
On July 16, 1979, United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock uranium mill tailings disposal pond breached its dam and 1100 tons of radioactive mill waste and approximately 93 million gallons of mine effluent flowed into the Puerco River. The contaminated water from the Church Rock spill traveled 80 miles downstream, traveling through Gallup, New Mexico and reaching as far as Navajo County, Arizona. The flood backed up sewers, affected nearby aquifers and left stagnating pools on the riverside.
The 50 ft. earthen dam was recognized as built on geologically unsound land by the corporation’s consultant and federal agencies. By 1977 cracks had appeared in the dam and went unreported to authorities. According to Paul Robinson, research director at the Southwest Research and Information Center, the spill resulted from “poor oversight, poor siting and poor construction” and is an example of the problems that can occur at uranium mines and mills.
In terms of the amount of radiation released the accident was comparable in magnitude to the Three Mile Island accident of the same year and has been reported as “the largest radioactive accident in U.S. History”. Shortly after the breach below the dam radiation levels of river water were 7000 times that of the allowable level of drinking water. In all, 46 curies of transuranic elements and heavy metals were released.
Although steps were taken at the time of the accident to notify the public in accordance with a state contingency plan, local residents were not immediately aware of the toxic danger and were accustomed to using the riverside for recreation and herb gathering. Residents wading in the water went to the hospital complaining of burning feet and were diagnosed with heat stroke. Livestock were also found dying. Prior to the accident local residents used river water for irrigation and livestock. The eventual assistance of trucked in water ended in 1981 and farmers were then left with little choice other than to resume use of the river.
For some types of cancers Navajo have a significantly higher rate than the national average. Yet, no ongoing epidemiological studies have been done at Church Rock. A peer reviewed article in the American Journal of Public Health in 2007 proposed that the stark lack of peer-reviewed studies of health effects of the accident when compared to well studied events such as Three Mile Island may be related to both the “early stage in the nuclear cycle” (mining, milling and processing) dependent on a large numbered labor-force and “low-income rural American Indian communities”.
Clean up was performed by state and federal criteria. About 3,500 barrels of waste materials were retrieved (estimated at only 1%). However, according Robinson, only a “very little of the spilled liquid was pumped out of the water supply”. The uranium mill site closed in 1982 related to a declining uranium market. In 1983 the site entered the National Priorities List of the Environmental Protection Agency‘s Superfund investigations and clean up efforts because radionuclides and chemical constituents were recognized as entering local ground water. In 1994 the EPA extended its efforts with a study of all known uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.
Soon after the dam break, two West German radiation biologists, Bernd Franke and Barbara Steinhilber-Schwab, sharply criticized the issued CDC report that downplayed the potential dangers of the accident and for sampling too few of the local livestock. They urged chromosome checks on area residents and called for the establishment of cancer and birth registries as well as intense ongoing radiation monitoring in the area. They also warned that thorium and other isotopes from the spill could enter the human body not only through eating contaminated animals, but also when radioactive dust settled on vegetables. Dr. Carl Johnson, director of Colorado’s Jefferson County Health Department, further warned that detectable radiation levels in the tissues of children might only surface “over a period of many years.”
Potential pathways of contamination are: inhalation, ingestion, injection, and absorption. At present, there is an elevated health risk for people who frequent the site from inhaling radium contaminated dust particles and/or radon gas, contact with contaminated rainwater and runoff that has pooled in ponds, and ingesting livestock that have drank and fed from contaminated water and grass.
Different radio-nuclides emit gamma rays of varying strength, but gamma rays can travel long distances and are able to penetrate entirely through the body. Both thorium 230 and radium 226 are alpha-emitters; extremely dangerous if ingested or inhaled. Therefore, any skin contact with contaminated surfaces poses a health risk. Thorium 230, for example, has a half-life of eighty thousand years and is believed by some to be as toxic as plutonium. Thorium, a silver-white metal, tends to deposit in the liver, bone marrow, and lymphatic tissue, where even minute quantities can cause cancer and leukemia. If inhaled as dust it can cause lung cancer. According to a study by Winterer, under some circumstances thorium can become “trapped” in the body, making it “a permanent source of radiation” there, and thus doing untold damage to the human organism.
Elevated concentrations of Radium-226 have been detected throughout the 125-acre mine permit boundary and contiguous surface areas. Exposure to high levels of Radium-226 over a long period of time may result in harmful effects including anemia, cataracts, fractured teeth, cancer (especially bone cancer), and death. Exposure to high levels of uranium can cause kidney disease.
In 1983, the privately owned site, owned by UNC, was designated a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who detected elevated radium and uranium contamination in 14 areas on and off-site, and beyond the permit boundary. The CDC warned locals not to drink water from the river, and to avoid its banks during windstorms, when radioactive particles might be more easily inhaled. The CDC emphasized that while radiation levels detected in local animals did not exceed New Mexico standards, caution should be exercised as “the health risks of low doses of radiation” were “not completely understood.” Contamination had exceeded low dosage levels in local animals. One veterinarian told a documentary crew from Eleventh Hour Films that abnormal radiation levels had been found in the tissues of goats and sheep that were drinking Rio Puerco water.
Oh, sure, human astronauts will be on board Space Shuttle Endeavour’s STS-134 mission set to launch Monday. But so will five microscopic life forms: Water Bears, also known as Tardigrades (shown above); the bacteria Deinococcus radiodurans and Bacillus subtilis; and the archaea Haloarcula marismortui and Pyrococcus furiosus.
Water Bears (or Tardigrades)
Members of the animal kingdom, the Water Bears are “huge” microorganisms compared to the other LIFE travelers. Their bodies are composed of four segments, each with two legs ending in claws. Water bears are extremophiles, which means they can adapt to some pretty hostile environments — from 150 degrees Celsius (302 Fahrenheit or hot enough to bake biscotti) to just a few degrees above absolute zero. Plus, they’re radiation resistant.
The tardigrades had already been coaxed into an anhydrobiotic state, during which their metabolisms slow by a factor of 10,000. This allows them to survive vacuums, starvation, dessication and temperatures above 300 degrees Fahrenheit and below minus 240 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once in orbit, the tardigrade box popped open. Some were exposed to low-level cosmic radiation, and others to both cosmic and unfiltered solar radiation. All were exposed to the frigid vacuum of space…
Just how the invertebrate astronauts protected themselves “remains a mystery,” wrote the researchers.
… personally, I think it looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie….
Conan the Bacterium (common nickname for Deinococcus radiodurans or "terrifying berries")
This strain of bacteria is so hardy it has the nickname, Conan the Bacterium. Whereas 10 Gy (Grays) of radiation would kill an average human, Deinococcus radiodurans can survive a whopping 5000 (five thousand) Gy. More than a third of the cells will even survive a dose of 15,000 Gy! That’s an ideal trait for long journeys through the dangerous radiation of outer space.
The Average Joe of Bacteria (Bacillus subtilis)
Bacillus subtilis is a “model organism,” a standard bacteria used over and over again in many different biological experiments. tThe MW01 strain will fly on Shuttle LIFE. Bacillus subtilis is also quite radiation resistant and has a long history of space biology missions, going back to the days of Apollo. That will allow a good comparison point between Shuttle LIFE and some of the other space flights of this bacterium.
Poison Lover (Halomonadaceae sp. GFAJ-1)
These rod shaped bacteria from the family Halomonadaceae made headlines as the first known microorganisms that are apparently able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical, arsenic. The bacteria appear to substitute arsenic for phosphorus in their cell components. If these results are confirmed, they may imply a separate biochemistry for life. And that means that life might arise in planetary conditions we never before thought suitable.
Old Salty (Haloarcula marismortui, an archaeon)
Many archaeons — a type of single-celled organism — are extremophiles that thrive under conditions that would destroy other organisms. Haloarcula marismortui lives in extremely salty environments. Why are we testing an organism that seems to enjoy high salinity? If ancient Mars had water on its surface at some point in the past, it was in all likelihood very salty and briny. Any life existed that there would probably have lived in those salty seas. It’s important to learn if such a salt-loving organism can survive a long journey through space.
Fire Eater (Pyrococcus furiosus, an archaeon)
These extremophiles love heat. Pyrococcus furiosus was discovered in 1986 in volcanically heated ocean sediments off the coast of Italy, and it thrives in temperatures between 70 and over 100 degrees Celsius (158 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit). But interplanetary space isn’t hot; nor is the surface of Mars or Phobos. So why send a heat-seeking extremophile on the journey? There is always the small risk that somewhere in processing the payload, some mistake would cause the payload to overheat. In that case, Pyrococcus furiosus will serve as a kind of temperature control. If it is the only LIFE organism to survive the trip, this will indicate that overheating rather than conditions in space caused the loss of the other organisms.
TEPCO released footage for the first time on Wednesday of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant Unit 3 reactor’s spent fuel pool. The fuel rods, covered in debris from the March explosions, weren’t visible in the footage but officials believe they are largely undamaged. In an operation filmed by a robot camera, 40 milliliters of water was collected from the spent fuel pool. The water is contaminated with high levels of radioactive material which needs further analysis for evaluation.
In light of the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, which has followed the news of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, I did a bit of poking around and discovered there was a nuclear accident prior to Three-Mile Island (1979).
The SL-1, or Stationary Low-Power Reactor Number One, was a United States Army experimental nuclear power reactor which underwent a steam explosion and meltdown on January 3, 1961, killing its three operators. The direct cause was the improper withdrawal of the main control rod, responsible for 80% of neutron moderation in the poorly-designed reactor core. The event is the only known fatal reactor accident in the United States.
The facility, located at the National Reactor Testing Station approximately forty miles (60 km) west of Idaho Falls, Idaho, was part of the Army Nuclear Power Program and was known as the Argonne Low Power Reactor (ALPR) during its design and build phase. It was intended to provide electrical power and heat for small, remote military facilities, such as radar sites near the Arctic Circle, and those in the DEW Line. The design power was 3 MW (thermal). Operating power was 200 kW electrical and 400 kW thermal for space heating. NASA system failure studies have cited that the core power level reached nearly 20 GW in just four milliseconds, precipitating the reactor accident and steam explosion.
On December 21, 1960, the reactor was shut down for maintenance, calibration of the instruments, installation of auxiliary instruments, and installation of 44 flux wires to monitor the neutron flux levels in the reactor core. The wires were made of aluminum, and contained slugs of aluminum-cobalt alloy.
On January 3, 1961 the reactor was being prepared for restart after a shutdown of eleven days over the holidays. Maintenance procedures were in process, which required the main central control rod to be manually withdrawn a few inches to reconnect it to its drive mechanism; at 9:01 p.m. this rod was suddenly withdrawn too far, causing SL-1 to go prompt critical instantly. In four milliseconds, the heat generated by the resulting enormous power surge caused water surrounding the core to begin to explosively vaporize. The water vapor caused a pressure wave to strike the top of the reactor vessel. This propelled the control rod and the entire reactor vessel upwards, which killed the operator who had been standing on top of the vessel, leaving him impaled to the ceiling by the control rod. The other two military personnel, a supervisor and a trainee, were also killed. The victims were Army Specialists John A. Byrnes (age 27) and Richard Leroy McKinley (age 22), and Navy Electrician’s Mate Richard C. Legg (age 26).
Events after the power excursion
There were no other people at the reactor site. The ending of the nuclear reaction was caused solely by the design of the reactor and the basic physics of heated water and core elements vaporizing, separating the core elements and removing the moderator.
Heat sensors above the reactor set off an alarm at the central test site security facility at 9:01 p.m., the time of the accident. False alarms had occurred in the morning and afternoon that same day. The first response crew, of six firemen, arrived nine minutes later, expecting another false alarm. and initially noticed nothing unusual, with only a little steam rising from the building, normal for the cold (−20 °F or −30 °C) night. The control building appeared normal. The firefighters entered the reactor building and noticed a radiation warning light. Their radiation detectors jumped sharply to above their maximum range limit as they were climbing the stairs to SL-1′s floor level. They were able to peer into the reactor room before withdrawing.
At 9:17 p.m., a health physicist arrived. He and a fireman, both wearing air tanks and masks with positive pressure in the mask to force out any potential contaminants, approached the reactor building stairs. Their detectors read 25 Roentgens per hour (R/hr) as they started up the stairs, and they withdrew.
Some minutes later, a health physics response team arrived with radiation meters capable of measuring gamma radiation up to 500 R/hr—and full-body protective clothing. One health physicist and two firefighters ascended the stairs and, from the top, could see damage in the reactor room. With the meter showing maximum scale readings, they withdrew rather than approach the reactor more closely and risk further exposure.
Around 10:30 p.m., the supervisor for the contractor running the site and a contractor health physicist arrived. They entered the reactor building and found two mutilated men: one clearly dead, the other moving slightly. With a one minute and one entry per person limit, a team of five men with stretchers recovered the operator who was still breathing; he did not regain consciousness and died of his head injury at about 11 p.m. Even stripped, his body was so contaminated that it was emitting about 500 R/hr. They looked for but did not find the third man. With all potential survivors now recovered, safety of rescuers took precedence and work was slowed to protect them.
On the night of 4 January, a team of six volunteers used a plan involving teams of two to recover the second body. Radioactive gold 198Au from the man’s brass watch buckle and copper 64Cu from a screw in a cigarette lighter subsequently proved that the reactor had indeed gone supercritical.
The third man was not discovered for several days because he was pinned to the ceiling above the reactor by a control rod. On 9 January, in relays of two at a time, a team of eight men, allowed no more than 65 seconds exposure each, used a net and crane arrangement to recover his body.
The bodies of all three were buried in lead-lined caskets sealed with concrete and placed in metal vaults with a concrete cover. Army Specialist Richard Leroy McKinley is buried in section 31 of Arlington National Cemetery.
Removal of core from SL-1
The remains of the SL-1 building did not go to the Burial Ground. After abandoning early thoughts of restoring the building, GE concluded that hauling the contaminated debris to the Burial Ground, a distance of sixteen miles and partly on Highway 20/26 would subject laborers to too much avoidable risk. Instead, it built two large pits and a trench about 1,600 feet away from the SL-1 compound. The walls of the silo, the power conversion and fan-floor equipment, the shielding gravel, and the contaminated soil that had been gathered during the clean-up all went into the pits. Three feet of clean earth shielded the material. An exclusion fence with hazard warnings went up around the area, the only monument to the reactor.
From the Arlington National Cemetary Records:
MILITARY DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON
WASHINGTON 28, D.C.
In Reply Refer To
AMHRC 31 January 1961
SUBJECT: Internment of Radioactive Remains
Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington 11, Virginia
1. Radioactive remains of SP4 Richard L. McKinley were interred at Arlington National Cemetery on 25 January 1961.
2. It is desired that the following remark be placed onthe permanent record, DA Form 2122, Record ofInternment:
“Victim of nuclear accident. Body is contaminated with long-life radio-active isotopes. Under no circumstances will the body be moved from this location without prior approval of the Atomic Energy Commission in consultation with this headquarters.”
I have not been able to find more details post-event, such as the health of those that were exposed during the rescue of the three workers killed. Life, news, and facts were handled much differently during these days….
Photo from 1961 of the damaged top of the SL-1 reactor vessel reused in 1981 to convey a safety message
Other information of interest:
Measures Relative to the Biological Effect of Radiation Exposure