A small platform crane hoists two men up near the roof gutter of a flat, one-floor building on the Harborview campus on First Hill. Slowly, one of the men moves a thick, round bar roughly six inches along the gutter with his right hand, stops, and then looks at the radiation survey meter in his left. Then he moves the bar another six inches. And another.
If there is any radiation left from the leak of radioactive material that left 13 people exposed during the decommissioning of an irradiator device in the middle of Seattle on May 2nd, these men will find it and wipe it down.
The concrete L-shaped loading dock and parking lot, wedged between the UW Medicine Harborview Medical Center Research and Training Building and a small administrative building near Terry Ave and Terrace, is already polka-dotted with white paint marks, designating areas where potential traces of Cesium-137 were found.
While being checked for radioactive residue, the R&T building is still on lockdown. State Patrol troopers guard the fenced-off entrances to make sure no one can go in and out. From behind the chain-link, there is not much to see — no Chernobyl-like scenes here — except for a sidewalk-wide stripe of white paint near the loading dock doors and a white plastic box covering the ventilation system. The parking lot exudes a ghostly calm.
Here, the night of May 2nd, crews from the Seattle Fire Department rushed to the scene to try to make sense of a rare incident that involved more than 50 people from at least six different agencies, including the department’s HAZMAT team, the Washington State Department of Health, the FBI, University of Washington, and a clean up crew with over 40 officials from the US Department of Energy.
More than six weeks after the leak, little is publicly known about what happened that night — and what went wrong.
Records obtained by CHS, reports by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as well as interviews with officials from the University of Washington, Washington State Department of Health and the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration shed more light on the night of the leak, and the aftermath.
The plan for that night, with preparations launched early this year, had been months in the making.