Two Ways To Die From Radiation

I’ve been asked to do a post on what would make the body of a victim of a radiological accident radioactive.

[Trigger warning: This is an unpleasant subject. Descriptions of seriously damaged bodies follow. I am posting this as a public service for those trying to figure out what happened at Nyonoksa and those writing about it. The link for Louis Slotin is particularly unpleasant.]

There are two ways to die from radiation. One is to be heavily irradiated, from a radiation source outside the body. The other is to have radioactive matter in your body, to be internally contaminated. Only the second case requires that the body be contained when it is buried.

Louis Slotin was the second person to die from being irradiated. He was taking chances with a weapon-shaped critical assembly and made a mistake. He died nine days after. Others who were in the room, but further from the assembly, lived much longer. Distance from an irradiation source helps determine the dose.

The assembly went critical and flashed an enormous flux of neutrons. Slotin was standing right next to it, and pulled it apart with his hand. The neutrons slammed through his body depositing energy, effectively cooking him. Neutrons can interact with elements to make them radioactive, but mostly not what the human body is made of. Alvin Graves, who was standing further back in the room, had a number of metal crowns on his teeth. They were activated. A gold mouthpiece was made for him to prevent the soft tissues in his mouth from being burned. I’m not sure how long he had to use it, but activation products are typically short-lived, so I would guess weeks to months.

Graves, and Raemer Schreiber, who was standing with him, went on to become executives of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and lived normal lifespans. Slotin was buried in a normal coffin. The medical personnel who treated him were in no danger from radiation.

A very different accident took place in Goiânia, Brazil, in 1987 (Wikipedia, IAEA report). A hospital radiation source containing cesium-137, the same isotope mentioned in connection with the Nyonoksa incident, came into possession of people who did not know what it was. A couple of men stole the source from an abandoned radiotherapy site. They quickly showed symptoms of radiation poisoning from handling the source. They were irradiated, as was Slotin. They punctured the capsule and found a glowing powder. They shared the powder with friends. A child ate a sandwich contaminated with the powder. She was a danger to people treating her because she had the radioactive material inside her. She died and was buried in a lead-lined coffin.

A number of other people were contaminated. Some suffered health effects. Three other people died. The village had to be decontaminated. A number of houses and a great deal of soil had to be removed and disposed of as radioactive waste.

For the Nyonoksa incident, the report that two people died from radiation poisoning has not been confirmed. If a reactor went critical and caused an explosion, those nearby would probably have wounds and broken bones in addition to radiation injury. The wounds might be contaminated with radioactive shrapnel. If somehow the incident that irradiated them was separate from the explosion, their bodies would not be a danger to medical personnel. If some other source were involved (this seems more likely at present) and they died from radiation poisoning, it would probably be from contamination.

I want to explain more about radiation issues the press often gets wrong, but I think this is enough for one post.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

19 replies
  1. 1

    […] Cross-posted to Balloon Juice […]

  2. 2
    HyperSphericalCow says:

    Alpha particles are the ones that are not such a big deal outside the body, but possibly lethal inside the body, right? As you explained, alpha irradiation is not good but not catastrophic, but alpha contamination is really bad? Do I have this right?

  3. 3
    debbie says:

    The neutrons slammed through his body depositing energy, effectively cooking him.

    And yet he lived for another 9 days? Jesus, we have to stop using this stuff.

  4. 4

    @HyperSphericalCow: Yes. Alpha particles can be stopped by a piece of paper but rip up your insides at close range. That’s why Alexander Litvinenko died but nobody else was seriously injured, even though his killers were careless with the polonium.

  5. 5
    🇺🇸🌎 Goku (aka Amerikan Baka) 🗳🌷 says:

    Distance from an irradiation source helps determine the dose.

    In addition, having a lot of matter (shielding) between you and the source of radiation can help as well

  6. 6
    Yarrow says:

    They punctured the capsule and found a glowing powder. They shared the powder with friends.

    As one does….

  7. 7
    Another Scott says:

    @🇺🇸🌎 Goku (aka Amerikan Baka) 🗳🌷: The type of shielding that helps depends on the type of radiation. But distance from the source is better – 1/r^2 is your friend.


  8. 8
    pacem appellant says:

    Citation Needed podcasts about two of the incidents:
    The Demon Core
    The Goiânia accident

  9. 9
    🇺🇸🌎 Goku (aka Amerikan Baka) 🗳🌷 says:

    @Another Scott:
    Definitely true. I’ve read that in the event of a coronal mass ejection or a solar flare during an Apollo mission, the crew would’ve pointed the service module of the CSM in the direction of the sun to reduce radiation exposure when not behind the moon. Anyone outside or on the lunar service would’ve been killed; the Lunar Module certainly wouldn’t have provided much protection. It was built with fuel efficiency in mind. Astronauts remarked that they were afraid they’d elbow a hole in the ascent module

    This was depicted in the book Space by James Michener and the miniseries based on it. A Apollo 18 that lands on the far side of the moon suffers this fate, with only the astronaut who remained in the CSM surviving. The ones who landed tried to take off, but passed out from rad poisoning and crashed. The automatic takeoff computer had failed and they tried entering lunar orbit manually

  10. 10
    MattF says:

    @Another Scott: You’ve activated a specific technical-nit sensitive spot, so I have to respond.

    [begin-nit] Yes, effects spread out from point sources like 1/r^2, but then you have to say how far from the source one must be for it to act like a point source. This turns out to depend on the actual size and shape of the source, and will generally be further from the source than you think. [/end-nit]

  11. 11
    Another Scott says:

    @MattF: Pile-on-pedantry is always welcome.



  12. 12
    Shantanu Saha says:

    A fictionalized version of Slotin’s accident was presented in the movie Fat Man and Little Boy, with John Cusack playing the Slotin-like character.

  13. 13
    Aleta says:

    Thanks Cheryl, MattF and @Another Scott:

  14. 14
    Bill Arnold says:


    alpha contamination is really bad

    Contamination with a short-half-life alpha emitter is like having your tissues contaminated with trillions of tiny random suicide bombers.

  15. 15
    David C says:

    In radiation safety classes, we learn time, distance, shielding. The less you have of the first and the more you have of the other two, the better off you are. I’m at the International Congress of Radiation Research, which starts today. I’ll see if I can learn anything about Nyonoksa.

    This radiation stuff is my day job as we try to prepare for a large scale radiation exposure. NASA also has an active radiation science programme (sorry – in the UK right now) because of the Mars mission. One issue is continuous low-level exposure but solar flares are a concern. Although the N is small, the Apollo astronauts who went out of low-earth orbit had cardiovascular issues.

    BTW, if you have a wound in addition to radiation exposure, you are much worse off. The progenitors of the blood cells that promote healing are among the most radiation-sensitive tissues in the body because they are always actively dividing.

  16. 16
    Robert Sneddon says:

    More pedantry: radioactive material doesn’t “glow” unless it is engineered to emit light, usually by encapsulating it in something that fluoresces. I have a tritium “light” to hand, it contains a small amount of radioactive tritium gas in a plastic capsule made from fluorescent material. The radiation (for tritium, that would be a beta particle) pumps the fluorescent coating and it emits light. I suspect the reporting of the Cs-137 source incident in Brazil Cheryl quoted was enhanced by the people who wrote it.

    The “radioactive glow” belief probably derives from picture of Cherenkov radiation which is an effect seen in swimming-pool reactors where light is produced as nuclear particles emitted from the reactor core slow down in the cooling and shielding water. I’ve seen it myself, a long time back and it’s spectacular but not intrinsic to radioactive material by itself.

    As for irradiation incidents, the Tokaimura accident in 1999 killed two people when solutions of enriched uranyl nitrate in water reached criticality and flooded the workspace with neutrons and gamma radiation.

  17. 17
    Gemina13 says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: And it took Litvinenko three weeks to die an agonizing death.

    A friend of mine and I once discussed the criticality accidents of both Slotin and Harry Daghlian. I’d never seen the photos before, though, and I included the link to them when reposting this. She saw it and commented, “The era of ‘let’s pick this up with a screwdriver!’ is fucking maddening.”

  18. 18

    @Robert Sneddon: Reports of other incidents with cesium chloride sources describe the material as glowing blue. I also recall going into an actinide lab at night to see solutions that glowed different colors. Perhaps it’s the chloride fluorescing in the case of cesium chloride. But the the attractiveness of the material was attributed to the glow. Glowing face paint. Cool.

  19. 19

    @Robert Sneddon: Here’s a report on Russian and American criticality accidents.

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