Imagine Microwave Oven Accidents at your Office, but with Plutonium

Nov 19th, 2007 | By | Category: Nukes

Ever since high school, one of my guilty pleasures is to read the Nuclear Regulator Commission’s Operating Experience Summaries. Every workplace dealing with significant amounts of radioactive material must report any accidents that could result in injury. The best are compiled and archived.

Something about the combination of ordinary foolishness, incredibly dangerous substances, absurdly convoluted environments and the disgusted passive voice of the anonymous governmental authors–as if written by the love child of Charles Mudede and A. Birch Steen–leads me to giggles.

Check out this one, jauntilly titled Near miss from explosion in microwave oven

The experiment’s principal researcher purchased a household microwave oven from a local department store for the experiment. The conventional oven he had used previously took several hours to heat the chemicals, and he hoped that a microwave oven would reduce the heating time to a few minutes. While the operating manual for the household microwave oven clearly cautioned against heating closed containers and chemicals, the researcher ignored these warnings. In preparing samples to heat in the microwave oven, he placed one-half milliliter of a ferric chloride and hydrochloric acid solution into each of four thin Pyrex® tubes that were four to five inches long and heat-sealed the ends. The researcher believed that the small amount of liquid in the glass tubes would not cause pressures to exceed the 400 to 500 pounds per square inch pressure-retaining capability of the tubes. However, he did not perform a design analysis and failed to enlist the aid of a subject matter expert to verify his assumption. Subsequent calculations showed that he grossly underestimated the air space needed to accommodate the expansion of the solution from a liquid to a gas.

The researcher placed the tubes inside the microwave oven, set the oven at 60 percent power for two minutes, and waited beside the microwave oven while an assistant stood in front. The tubes exploded after about one minute, opening the oven door and splattering liquid chemical about 1 foot, which fortunately was not far enough to hit the researchers. Glass stained with ferric chloride landed near the assistant, but he was not injured. Both researchers were wearing safety glasses.

Or this one, titled Lessons Learned from Leak at British Reprocessing Plant [PDF]

On April 20, 2005, a camera inspection of a feed clarification cell revealed that a pipe carrying highly radioactive dissolver solution to an accountancy tank had severed (Figure 3-3) and leaked 83,00 liters of nitric acid solution containing approximately 20 metric tons of uranium and plutonium onto the floor of the cell and into a sump. There were no injuries and the highly radioactive solution was contained within the cell. The leaking pipe had gone undetected for a period of 9 months. The camera inspection was initiated because of calculated discrepancies in the nuclear material balance.

Twenty metric tons of enriched uranium and plutonium go missing before someone notices a problem. Perfect!

So many more for you to peruse can be found at the Department of Energy website.