Global Schoolhouse on Rua 6

Published Date: 7 March 2008

© IAEA It looks like just a scrapyard, but stands as a global schoolhouse when it comes to radiological safety and security. The scrapyard at Rua 6 in Goiânia, Brazil, was home to one of the world's worst radiation accidents in 1987. Its lessons still shape national and global actions decades later. Families live and work at the junkyard on Rua 6, much as they did at the time of the 1987 accident. Everyone pitches in to sort the plastic and metal collected off the streets for recycling. The accident started when scrap merchants found a metal canister in an abandoned medical clinic. To them it was a chunk of valuable metal. What they didn't know was that it contained a powerful radioactive source, once used to treat cancer. The source contained caesium chloride. It was sold to a junkyard, whose owner cut open its protective steel and lead casing. Inside he was fascinated to discover the radioactive powder that glittered and glowed blue in the dark. The caesium was given as presents to neighbours, relatives and friends. Unknowingly, people daubed it, like makeup, on their skin. "They thought it was nice to rub it on the skin and turn the lights off and to dance like in a disco," says Dr. Nelson Valverde who treated patients at the time of the accident. Today a hopscotch pitch is etched at the site where the caesium chloride was first extracted. It marks streets that were contaminated. The radioactive powder spread, undetected, in downtown Goiânia for over two weeks. "Blue flowers grow in my garden" a graffiti wall says. The home and scrapyard that once stood here were quickly demolished when a large-scale operation to decontaminate the city began. The whole operation, from first response to remediation, lasted six months and involved about 800 people. The legacy of a handful of caesium is 3,000 cubic metres of contaminated waste. It's buried in these two green hills, at a near surface repository on the outskirts of the city. It will take 300 years before the land can be used again. The accident claimed the life of a little girl, Leide das Neves Ferreira, that lived at this junkyard in 1987. She ate a sandwich after touching the "pretty" caesium power. Leide das Neves Ferreira was one of four who died in the first weeks of the accident. Some 250 men, women and children were contaminated. Over 100,000 panicked residents were checked for contamination. The four victims were buried in lead lined coffins due to public fears their bodies would leak radiation. A piece of the radioactive source was also sold to this scrap metal yard on Rua 19 in Goiânia. Fortunately it was discovered before it was melted and recycled. Goiânia's plight brought global change. The International Atomic Energy Agency introduced more rigorous safety standards for radioactive sources. Today Brazil requires that each and every source is licensed for lifetime tracking to final disposal. Goiânia was the catalyst for the IAEA to begin documenting "lessons learned" from nuclear and radiological accidents. It highlighted to the rest of the world important ways to prevent and plan to respond to accidents like Goiânia. Brazil's invitation to have the Agency draw "lessons learned" paved the way for more open, transparent reporting of accidents. Strong regulatory controls are vital, but it goes well beyond "policeman attitudes," says Eliana Amaral, IAEA Director of Radiation, Transport and Waste Safety. Training people to safely use radioactive materials and developing a strong safety culture among users, is also necessary to thwarting potential accidents. A new symbol to alert people to the potential dangers of powerful radiation sources was introduced by the IAEA and International Organization for Standardization in 2007. "We can't teach the world about radiation," said Carolyn MacKenzie, a former IAEA radiation specialist who helped develop the symbol, "but we can warn people about dangerous sources for the price of a sticker." The symbol was tested with some 1650 individuals in Brazil, Mexico, Morocco, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Thailand, Poland, Ukraine and the United States. Worldwide radioactive sources are still lost, abandoned or uncontrolled. Many turn up in the metal recycling chain. They are detected at border checkpoints or at larger smelters where radiation monitors are installed. Sources are often "lost" in times of war and upheaval: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, civil wars in Africa, wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq to name a few. The lessons of Goiânia continue to shape national and global actions. "Worldwide the situation is improving, more and more countries have strong regulatory systems, improved physical protection of radioactive material and better detection systems at borders," says Vilmos Friedric who Heads an IAEA Unit to control radioactive sources. Only a small percentage of sources are strong enough to cause serious radiological harm. But it's those few that the international community and government must be sure to control. So that an accident like Goiânia is never repeated.