Entry for March 26, 2007

Photo from an NRC 3/26 news release, “NRC Asks for Help in Locating Missing Radioactive Source in Philadelphia” which shows a “radioactive americium-241” source bolted to the aluminum 9- inch-by-15-inch baseplate of a soil density gauge stolen from a construction site Monday, March 19.

I’ve already written about the commercial tanker that crashed in California while carrying nuclear waste. Now in an episode worthy of the keystone kops (except the police were effective, it’s the NRC who are clowns) I bring you tidings of how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs you!

The radioactive source pictured above has gone missing from South Philly, one of two inside the gauge stolen from an unamed construction site last Monday. The other source was found at Nicetown Salvage Company last Thursday.

Yesterday, the NRC and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania finally got around to asking the Department of Energy Radiological Assistance Program team with more sensitive radiation detection/monitoring equipment to help with the search.

Since the Nicetown company had sent a shipment of aluminum to a processing
facility in Camden, N.J. (formerly famous for my Aunt Mimi and Campbell Soup) folks wanted to seach Camden first. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection staff members found nothing.

Today, the DOE teams searched the construction site, the Nicetown and Camden sites and a route in between the two sites but came up empty.

They’re issuing the usual disclaimers. You know, “The material is only dangerous to a member of the public if ingested or inhaled or the source container is completely disassembled and the source remains in contact with the skin continuously for several days.”

They want to assure us that it’s not a terrorist in search of nuclear material, probably just someone wanting to steal a “high-end tool box” or wanting to sell the device for its “scrap metal value, unaware of the contents. “

Gee, if the thief is still in possession, I wonder if s/hewill catch wind of this and find a higher bidder? Anyone with information is asked to call the NRC at 301/816-5100. I’ll bet said thief is calling as I type this entry.

Jessie S. rated the Germantown Road facility in Tioga at Insider Pages:

Nicetown salvage is a typical junkyard operation. They take ll sorts of metal scrap: iron, copper, nickel, bronze. Good place to get rid of your unwanted metals.
They have a pick-up service for nearby areas.

Wonder if the thief took advantage of that pick-up service. A few things NRC didn’t mention that the Philly Ink writer Joseph A. Gambardello (email) revealed in his March 23 story, “Tipster leads authorities to stolen nuclear gauge”

  • Police and firefighters found the gauge hours after information from a tipster who had probably seen pictures of the distinctive yellow case with its red radioactive symbols broadcast on local television. High end tool box? Scrap metal?
  • the device also contained cesium-137
  • Fire Department Executive Chief Daniel Williams said five people, including two police officers, were taken to a hospital as a precaution. One had a high radioactive reading from contamination of his shirt.
  • the hunt and the subsequent recovery operation snarled traffic throughout the area into the evening rush hour;
  • and my favorite, Nicetown Salvage has been closed and will have to be decontaminated after a stolen nuclear gauge was found in a crusher Thursday, a location which Police Chief Inspector Joseph O’Connor called “mind-boggling.”

Cesium-137 according to the Centers for Disease Control’s radioisotope brief, is the the stuff that’s still around from the 1950’s nuclear tests and Chernobyl. It descrbes the what’s contained in industrial guages as “large, concentrated amounts” The sources in these and radiation therapy devices

are designed to remain sealed and keep people from being exposed; however, if these canisters are intentionally or accidentally opened, the Cs-137 inside could be dispersed…[which] can cause burns, acute radiation sickness, and even death. Exposure to Cs-137 can increase the risk for cancer because of exposure to high-energy gamma radiation. Internal exposure to Cs-137, through ingestion or inhalation, allows the radioactive material to be distributed in the soft tissues, especially muscle tissue, exposing these tissues to the beta particles and gamma radiation and increasing cancer risk.

And Americium-241? According to the EPA’s fact sheet, it

poses a significant risk if ingested (swallowed) or inhaled. It can stay in the body for decades and continue to expose the surrounding tissues to both alpha and gamma radiation, increasing the risk of developing cancer. Americium-241 also poses a cancer risk to all organs of the body from direct external exposure to its gamma radiation. One source of direct exposure would be contaminated soil. Exposure to any significant amount of Am-241 is unlikely under normal circumstances. (“Normal circumstances” do not include trying to access or remove the Am-241 source in a smoke detector!)

All this makes me wonder if that salvage yard crusher’s activity qualifies for the complete disassembling that the NRC thought so unlikely? Go figure.

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