Criticality Accidents from the Victims' Perspectives

D.M. Minnema1 and V.L. Putman2 (1National Nuclear Security Administration, US DOE; 2Idaho National Laboratory)

There have been 60 nuclear criticality accidents worldwide since the nuclear age began over 60 years ago. These inadvertent critical excursions yield prodigious amounts of neutrons and ionizing radiation within very short periods of time, and some oscillate in power until achieving a quasi-steady state power level. Of these, at least 23 have occurred in the direct vicinity of individuals. The human toll of these accidents is well known, with 21 fatalities and at least 27 persons with physical injuries. All of the injured victims were reported to have suffered from acute radiation sickness, and at least 7 suffered permanent disabilities, including at least 4 with amputations of arms or legs. Much has been written about the technical and physical nature of the nuclear systems involved in these accidents and the medical effects of the injuries to the victims. However, to prepare for a possible criticality accident or other significant radiological accident, it is important to know what to expect during and immediately after such an accident. In other words, it is necessary to understand what it was like "being there". After reviewing all of the criticality accidents, we selected and studied 20 accidents that resulted in fatalities or significant physical injuries among the exposed victims, focusing on the perspective of the victims during the course of and immediately following the accident, until the victims were taken offsite for treatment. We observed common characteristics among the victims' experiences that can assist facilities in preparing for such an event, and in developing appropriate simulations for training purposes. From these common characteristics it can be seen that there are some simple and practical recommendations that we believe will enhance the facility's ability to respond to such an event, potentially improve the medical outcome of the victims, and increase the safety of the collocated workers and accident responders.

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