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An ‘extraordinarily severe’ emergency: the radioactive leak at Harborview

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.

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An irradiator, a medical device containing radioactive material used in research on the connections between bone marrow cells and immune response in a lab at the R&T building, would be decommissioned and moved to a safe disposal site with the help of International Isotopes, a contractor hired by the US Department of Energy. International Isotopes, an Idaho-based public company valued at $20.85 million, routinely performs these kinds of operations where they go into hospitals, blood banks, and research centers to help decommission medical machines with radioactive material.

This irradiator at the R&T building was, like many others, for years filled with research samples to be sterilized with the help of the radioactive isotope cesium-137, which kills HIV, Hepatitis and other viruses, bacteria, and pathogens.

In an irradiator, blood and research samples are exposed to the radiation of cesium-137, a white powder, through a briefly opening radiation-blocking window, like a camera shutter system. This all happens inside the machine. Multiple tubes of metal containers surround the cesium-137, to make sure nothing can escape. That would be incredibly dangerous. Exposure to large amounts of cesium-137 can cause burns, radiation sickness and increase the risk of cancer– and in case of very large quantities, death.

Because cesium-137 is so easily dispersed in air, this also makes it an “ideal” material for a dirty bomb. That’s why an FBI officer and State Patrol Troopers are usually on site during a procedure like this.

And that’s why the State Patrol Troopers are still there weeks later on First Hill, guarding the entrances to the building in unmarked patrol cars. The radioactive source and the irradiator are still inside the building while the investigation runs its course.

“Cesium-137 is one of the isotopes of most concern in what’s called ‘nuclear nonproliferation,'” said Leigh Winfrey, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Nuclear Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. “It could potentially be a target for terrorists to take and put it in regular bombs, because it’s easily dispersed [in the air], it dissolves in water. It would be really, really nasty if it was distributed with a regular bomb.”

After 9/11, concerns about dirty bombs increased, so the Department of Energy’s Off-Site Source Recovery Program (OSRP), which recovers excess and unwanted radioactive sources, expanded its efforts to decommission more types of sources that contained high amounts of radioactive material, particularly so-called “high-risk” sources greater than 130 curies.

Decommissioning the device at Harborview — which contained 4,000 2,800 curies of cesium-137 — was part of a fairly common phasing-out procedure for hospitals and labs across the country. But a leak like this is not. The state Department of Health called it “very rare,” as did Winfrey.

“This kind of material doesn’t just sort of sit around,” Winfrey said. “so we’re usually very, very cautious.”

For the decommissioning process on May 2nd, this meant that seven International Isotopes contractors would be, in keeping with protocol, accompanied by an FBI officer, inspectors from the Department of Health, and two radiation experts from UW.

The procedure wouldn’t take more than one night. They would start after 5 PM and perhaps get the device out by daybreak. By the morning of May 3rd, the irradiator and vial of cesium-137 would be on trucks to be shipped to safe disposal sites, and the roughly 200 researchers and employees of the R&T building would be able to go back to their jobs and into their labs running tests on sexually transmitted diseases, Alzheimer’s, vaccine trials and other research.

But that isn’t what happened.

The first leg of the procedure went fine. The machine had been moved, with a crane, to the loading dock area, basically a garage (a couple of floors above the vivarium that holds live animals, mostly rodents, for research). International Isotopes contractors had set up a secure steel “chamber” wherein they would perform a crucial, most perilous part of the operation: removing the capsule with cesium-137 from the irradiator.

Separating the two before transport is not out of the ordinary. Winfrey said that transporting the capsule within the irradiator would be extremely unsafe and against regulation — there are special transport casks for the radioactive capsule that can withstand accidents and even missile hits.

And so, the crew, wearing steel-toed boots and gloves deployed a “grinding wheel” to remove a tungsten plug that held a protective sleeve around the capsule. Tungsten is both very hard and brittle, difficult to cut and tends to shatter. That might have made the cutting work harder. At some point, the capsule with cesium-137, instead of just the tungsten plug, was cut.

“Generally, once that pin is removed, the source holder is removed from the plug and the source [cesium-137 capsule] can be accessed,” said Leslie Velarde, Public Affairs Specialist for the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration. “There was never an intent to cut the source itself.”

Quickly, an unknown amount of cesium-137 spread into the irradiator, the “chamber,” the loading dock and a 100-feet radius around the loading dock, plus the first three floors and one stair of the R&T building, resulting in “widespread contamination.” UPDATE: We have updated the description of the amount of cesium and the amount released to reflect updated information after a miscommunication with an official. The exact amount of the leak is under investigation and will be quantified once the source is taken to a laboratory for analysis. We regret the error and will update once we hear back.

The leak happened at 9.30 PM and was discovered during a regular and procedural wipe-down, meant to see if any material had been released.

A 911 call, from the on-scene Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) coordinator, came in about an hour later, at 10:25 PM. The message: there has been a “radiation leak from a blood irradiator,” a draft report from the Seattle Fire Department notes.

Quickly, the Seattle Fire Department Hazardous Materials Response Team (HAZMAT team) speeds to the scene. When they get there, tape has already been hung to cordon off both entrances to the parking area.

The UW Radiation Safety Officer, who was on site for the operation and had most likely been exposed to the radioactive material himself, tells the Fire Department seven contractors are still inside, attempting to “weld the breach shut.”

Apart from them, he says, six others had been in the building: janitors who had “possibly been exposed to the contamination” and had been ushered to the corner of Alder and Terry some 150 feet away, waiting to be screened for contamination.

Meanwhile, the HAZMAT team is not getting many answers from the safety officer: Which material exactly, leaked? Was it granular? A powder? “We attempted to question” the UW Radiation Safety Officer to develop an action plan, but “were not provided pertinent information,” the draft report states.

“We had no official prior knowledge of the decommissioning of the irradiator and therefore were not aware of the site action plan or any pre-planned emergency actions,” it reads.

Only later did the team find out it was cesium-137 “in talcum powder form,” which is highly dispersible in the air. And it was only when they asked whether the HVAC system for the building had been secured that the UW safety officer called someone, the report notes. Within minutes, it is shut down.

With information streaming in slowly, the HAZMAT Team posts up on the north side of the building because of a south wind and come up with their action plan on the fly, calling in help from a decontamination team, battalion chief and three fire engines, plus a medical services officer.

That night, over 30 people from the fire department are called to the scene. They also notify the FBI, the Washington National Guard’s 10th Civil Support Team, Radiological Assistance Program Region 8, the Environmental Protection Agency and Seattle Public Utilities. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security are also notified.

Though the information about what is happening is incomplete and still coming in, the HAZMAT team — decked out in protective suits — takes the situation seriously. They judge the contamination potential “significant” based on the type of radioactive material, radiation counts, and “the lack of PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] worn by everyone exposed.”

Kate Lynch of the Department of Health said it wasn’t unusual that the team in charge of the decommissioning were not wearing higher-level Personal Protective Equipment because usually, “it’s a pretty simple process.”

At least, the Fire Department notes, no one seemed to be in urgent medical need. The patients were wiped with dry and wet hand wipes to get the “contaminant” off, and once they were cleared, “wrapped in temporary clothing” and moved to Harborview in ambulances.

In total, 10 people, the International Isotope contractors, the FBI agent and two UW employees were sent to the hospital and placed in a contained area of the Harborview Medical Center Emergency Room, though in the end, only the seven contractors submitted blood and urine samples, with the highest exposures hovering near 55 millirems of radiation.

Those doses, Winfrey explained, were in the order of about 1 mammogram, around 10 to 12 flights across the country, or about a quarter of a CT scan. “That’s not much at all,” she said.

With the people exposed at the hospital, decontamination could begin. Outdoor louvers and doors to the loading dock were covered with heavy plastic. A team from The Department of Energy surveyed the building floors, while International Isotopes employees inspected the parking lot area, marking spots with radiation levels with white paint.

At 5:51 AM, everything was somewhat under control again. By 10 AM, all of the ”patients’ had been evaluated and released from the emergency department.

Things were far from being back to normal, however. That the HVAC system was shut off to prohibit the cesium from spreading through the building was a good thing. But as it stayed off, in the days after the leak, the building started to heat up. Which meant the freezers in the building, which keep research specimen at -80°C, had to work harder to stay cool. Some were failing. Important research samples were in danger.

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, labor, and samples are being lost on a daily basis. This could destroy the careers of people who have been working their entire lives on research meant to save lives and improve public health and hospital outcomes,” an anonymous source told KIRO.

UW/Harborview personnel moved the contents of some units to other freezers nearby about a week after the spill, said Susan Gregg of the UW Medicine.

“If they were showing signs of failure, the materials were moved to other freezers,” Gregg said. “We were very diligent that none of those research specimens were damaged.” No specimens were found to have any contamination, she added. The animals, mostly rodents, held in the building’s vivarium, have all been moved to another location as well. It took about two weeks for the HVAC system to be turned back on.

Just this Tuesday, teams went into the building to remove bio-waste, infectious disease materials left over from experiments, and materials from incubators where things were growing since the event.

Most R&T Building employees have resumed work, said UW. Some researchers, wearing booties and gloves and escorted by someone from the clean-up crew, were able to go into the building to retrieve some samples to continue their work in other UW labs across the city.

Ana Mari Cauce, President of the University of Washington, declared the situation an “emergency of an extraordinarily severe and extended nature,” said Gregg, who called such a declaration “pretty unprecedented.” Cauce “authorized University leaders with authority over the impacted worksite to take necessary measures, including release with pay in appropriate situations.”

UW also said it was too early to “speculate to the potential costs incurred.”

Tina Mankowski of UW Medicine said that up to now, no-one had asked for a compensation of any kind and that the UW’s HR department is in touch with the union representative of the seven janitors (also UW employees) working in another part of the building that night.

UW said a notification went out to all employees of the building ahead of the planned decommissioning event on May 2nd, including the supervisors of the janitors. Asked if the janitors were supposed to be in the building that evening, Mankowski said, “I believe so.”

Meanwhile, the decontamination — meaning measuring radiation levels with handheld detectors as well as vacuuming, sweeping and wiping up of the residual materials — continues, while both the irradiator and radioactive material remain in the building in a shielding cask.

Questions remain as well. What precisely went wrong during the cutting process? What happened in the hour between the breach and the call to the fire department? And, as the responding fire department crew notes in the draft report: Why was the fire department not informed of the operation or pre-planned emergency plan? The Seattle Fire Code does not require it for this particular situation, said a Public Information Officer from Seattle Fire. And why did they not put up a barrier on the doors and vents beforehand?

“We don’t know the reason [for] the process that they used,” said Kate Lynch of the DOH. “That’s something that is being investigated. They’re [DOE] going to move it [the irradiator and source] to one of the national labs. They are going to recreate what happened in a controlled environment.”

Only then, the capsule and irradiator will be moved to their original destination by the Department of Energy contractors who are busy cleaning the building as we speak. About four dozen people from the Department of Energy have traveled to Seattle to oversee the investigation and clean-up.

Only when the Department of Health gives the green light, the building will reopen. That will take months, probably until after Labor Day said a UW spokesperson. “And we don’t even know how long after Labor Day.”

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40 thoughts on “An ‘extraordinarily severe’ emergency: the radioactive leak at Harborview” -- All CHS Comments are held for moderation before publishing

  1. Unfortunately industrial accidents happen but glad to read that this inter-agency emergency management team was able to quickly minimize/mitigate public risk with minimal disruption to hospital operations.

  2. Since there are several residential buildings 100 feet from the loading dock and parking lot, I wonder what, if any, information was shared with those places.

    • I live in a building that faces the loading dock. My window was wide open for at least an hour before any response was organized. Various tenants, including me briefly, walked outside and were not warned away.
      If anyone was given information here it was not passed on to the tenants. I have asked various people, including the on-site police and emergency room people and the subject has been waved aside. No problem. Nothing to see here. I believe it was potentially more serious than anyone has told us. I went to harborview er in the days following the spill, but had to wait a very long time and eventually just went home. I want to know, most of all, if I could have carried contamination to my family. I don’t know where to go to get answers for this.

  3. Wow. Mistakes happen, but the actions taken (or not taken) in the immediate aftermath are pretty astonishing. Glad SFD HAZMAT stepped in and up. And excellent coverage Margo! Very nicely written!

  4. Thank you for this. Just a few weeks ago my daughter who works at Harborview and the UWMC was wondering when someone would write follow up story on this. Caesium-137 and strontium-90 continue to pose the greatest risk to health and are the principal sources of radiation in the zone of alienation around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and . It also is the source of major health risks at Fukushima, the cost to human health over the next 20 years is expected to be severe.

  5. How much a person is exposed to in terms of exterior dose vs how much they inhaled is an important question. How much dust got into the soft tissues of the lungs, throat, mouth, nose of those workers? The Cesium will damage soft tissue far more readily than skin and that damaged tissue will very likely result in a cancer node. It’s so awful those folks have been exposed this way. Within the next 5-15 years the answer will present itself in the form of heart problems, compromised immune systems, malaise, fatigue…

    • Hi Malcolm, that’s absolutely true. For your information, here’s more info about the internal exposure: “International Isotopes provided a detailed update on internal and whole body doses, skin contamination and decontaminated results for the affected seven individuals. The highest internal dose was 57.1 mrem for individual 1, the highest whole body dose was 55 mrem for individual 7, and the highest dose to the skin from skin contamination was 36 mrem to individuals 3 and 4. Blood sampling of the individuals showed no changes due to radiation.” — report from the NRC.

  6. Excellent work on the article. I heard through the coworker rumor mill that several exposed individuals had left the building after being exposed, and prior to good control at the scene.

    One went to Chick-fil-A in Tacoma prior to being called back to the scene. Another who left the scene later had his home checked – there was contamination on his pillow. The poster who mentioned the inhalation hazard was spot on.

    The fact that the contractor & the UW radiation “expert” didn’t have a response plan that included immediate shut down of the building’s AC system shows the gaps in their planning.

    • Hello, thanks for your comment. I’m interested in hearing more about this. Perhaps, if your source feels comfortable, they can reach out to me? If you feel like telling them, my email address is margo.vansynghel(at) !

    • 55 millirem is about one month of normal background exposure for the US. Not much in the grand scheme of things.

      “According to the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP), the average annual radiation dose per person in the U.S. is 620 millirem. One millirem equals 0.001 rem. … Most of our average annual dose comes from natural background radiation.”

  7. First-rate journalism here, all too rare in Seattle these days. And begs the question, why isn’t this a headline/top of news story for the rest of the so-called journalism community in Seattle? They have shown little-but-passing (and almost no follow-upstories that comprehensively examine the issues like the work done here) interest in a situation that threatens our region’s leading trauma center as well as the wider Seattle community. The situation that jumps out at me is that they attempted this procedure (apparently) with the HVAC system circulating air in that building? Please tell me that isn’t the case – it would be Chernobyl-level incompetence.

  8. Excellent journalism Margo! Sure puts the reporting of the better funded outlets to shame. Also from the rumor mill:

    I heard that “what precisely went wrong with the cutting process” was that it happened at all- cutting/grinding power tools should never have been employed. The UW RSO probably should have red flagged the mere notion and halted the work. And the failure to call first responders for over an hour seems inexcusable, as was letting people wander around and contaminate other areas.

    Regarding the HVAC system, it should be noted that in loading dock areas the ventilation is typically exhaust only, so it would not have directly circulated into other areas of the building. HOWEVER, that’s not necessarily a good thing- the exhaust would typically be shot out the top of the building or into an areaway spanning the full height of the building, unfiltered. From there it could both spread into the surrounding environment and get sucked back into air intakes, which would also typically be on the roof.

    Note the carefully worded language of UW Medicine on the sign- they say that they “have not detected any levels of radiation that pose a public health risk” in the surrounding areas, not that Cesium-137 didn’t get spread to those areas. The amount was indeed probably small, but they also obviously don’t want to scare people or get sued.

    • Hello, thanks for your comment. I’m interested in hearing more about this. Where did you hear/get this information? Perhaps, if you or your source feel(s) comfortable, you/them can reach out to me? My email address is margo.vansynghel(at)
      For anyone else reading this and interested in talking to me privately with more info, feel free to reach out as well.

  9. The event was being done by a Dept of Energy contractor, the UW wasn’t really involved. This wasn’t the first time the contractor had done source removals, and what was happening was not unusual. The idea that someone could have predicted they would cut the source is not correct. The amount of radiation anyone got from the breach is insignificant. US citizens get 310 mrem every year, so even the 55 mrem is nothing (not to mention workers can get 5,000 mrem yearly and that is safe level). This was an accident, but other than some contamination to the building, it wasn’t significant from a health standpoint – to workers or the public. With that said, this article is the best news coverage of any outlet about this event. Well done. And the person who went to chick filet had minor contamination and they did go back and check the eatery, and no contamination was found.

    • Checked comments looking for a sane, educated reply. Found one. Thank you. So rare (especially in Seattle) to find people who don’t run, screaming, at the utterance of “radiation.”

    • Sure 0.05 rem is peanuts, but the radiation dose taken that night is not the health issue for these workers. The issue is how much of the material they absorbed. It has a 70-day biological elimination half life. Has anyone stated how many microcuries of material the workers took on?

      I have to assume they’ve got good radiation medicine docs and I hope the answer is that the workers will be fine, but I am concerned that nobody has quoted any number on body burden of material.

      This dispersed 2800 curies of material. By Wikipedia, 0.5 millicuries is a thoroughly lethal dose for a 100-kg animal. Easily 5000+ human lethal doses if the numbers are right. Did the person operating the grinder take in 0.02% of the dispersed material? I hope not.

      • Agreed, regarding the 2800 curies. If there was a total of 4000 curies in the entire assembly, and ‘Fred’ with the grinder cutting through the outer shell accidentally nicked the inner case, it seems unlikely that 70% of the total contents would be lost. Quoting Monty Python: “You must have a hell of a hole in your net.”

        2800 millicuries, perhaps? 2.8 curies, of the total 4000, would be more believable, though still significant.

      • Thanks for flagging this! We have updated the description of the amount of cesium and the amount released to reflect updated information after a miscommunication with an official, who had confirmed 2,800 as the amount of the leak. It was not the leak, but the source that was estimated to be of 2,800 curies. (The source was 4,000 curies when delivered in 2003) The exact amount of the leak is under investigation and will be quantified once the source is taken to a laboratory for analysis. Apologies for the error.

    • Question! The 55mr picked up by one individual was that internal or external? Is there a difference? Skin exposure vs soft tissue as far as radiation worker limits?

  10. Another thank-you for the article.

    Could you say where the 2800 curie number came from for the lost material? That is an alarming number so I would appreciate the source. Not that it’s too surprising if the device was 4000 curies (initially or currently?) and they lost the majority. :-/

    • Agreed, regarding the 2800 curies. If there was a total of 4000 curies in the entire assembly, and ‘Fred’ with the grinder cutting through the outer shell accidentally nicked the inner case, it seems unlikely that 70% of the total contents would be lost. Quoting Monty Python: “You must have a hell of a hole in your net.”

      2800 millicuries, perhaps? 2.8 curies, of the total 4000, would be more believable, though still significant.

      • 2.8 would make me feel a lot better!

        In terms of amount of material, 2800 curies is 32 grams of Cs element, ballpark 10 cubic centimeters of CsCl solid. Could they have kept on grinding through that much volume while trying just to get through a pin?

        Whereas 2.8 curies is 0.01 cm3 = 10 mm3, a pinch of salt. That’s more of a nick volume right?

        Yeah on looking at it, 2800 curies is just so damn much stuff, I can convince myself the 2800 was probably in millicuries. I for sure hope it was.

        Margo, if you check the comments, can you say any more about this value?

      • Thanks for flagging this! We have updated the description of the amount of cesium and the amount released to reflect updated information after a miscommunication with an official, who had confirmed 2,800 as the amount of the leak. It was not the leak, but the source that was estimated to be of 2,800 curies. (The source was 4,000 curies when delivered in 2003) The exact amount of the leak is under investigation and will be quantified once the source is taken to a laboratory for analysis. We will update once we hear back. Apologies for the error.

      • @eub: Chuckles on the “Goiania-level incident alert” comment, and thanks for the reminder to refresh my memory on that incident.

        @Margo: If the official confirmed the 2800 Curies figure, then the apologies should be owned by the official. I appreciate the manner in which you chased that detail down and set the record straight.

  11. Margo, this is an impressive piece of writing. I am comparing it to so much recent “journalism” that completely fails the reader and the topic. I’m not a journalist, I am an analyst, and it has been terribly frustrating to watch some situations become sensationalized without the context that the public needs to understand what is going on (for example, the failure of most journalists to explain to the public that the Oregon legislature did NOT shut down- the House was in full operation during the entire non-event and the Senate still held committee meetings). Your article could be used as an example for other journalists on how to do it right. Journalism students should be made to read it and talk about it in terms of journalistic ethics. I also want to congratulate your commenters on the tenor of most of the comments, and your measured response to them. I’m not so measured at times, I’m afraid.

    • Aye! Well written, well researched. Margo, this is journalism as it should be. Unfortunately, too rare.

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  13. 1. ” Winfrey said that transporting the capsule within the irradiator would be extremely unsafe and against regulation” …. except History now proves otherwise. And, as for attempting to regulate incompetence ….
    2. Or here’s another question: Why not design the tungsten plug to be removed without a materials-destruction process? Never enough money to do it right – always enough money to throw assets at the disaster.
    3. “Those doses, Winfrey explained [blah blah] not much at all,” she said.” Awwwww, ain’t that nice.