Cross-posted from a LiveJournal post on Sep. 16th, 2012
So yes, this is an old story, but it came up because I was once again looking for a particular quote about Cobalt-60, and Google gave me my own post as the first search result. That’s always a titillating feeling.
In the closing pages of Robin Cook’s Fatal Cure, we learn that the evil hospital administrator bastards who have been killing people with massive doses of gamma radiation (because they were using too many hospital resources) come to a satisfyingly karmic end.
Scanning the cluttered conference table, David spotted the source instantly. It was a cylinder about a foot long whose diameter matched the size of the bore in the treatment arm he’d examined only minutes ago. Several Teflon rings were embedded in its circumference. On its top was a locking pin. The cylinder was standing upright next to a model of a parking garage just as Van Slyke had indicated.Cook, Robin, Fatal Cure, Putnam, 1993
David started for the cylinder, clutching a lead apron in both hands.
“Stop!” Traynor yelled.
Before David could get to the cylinder, Caldwell leapt to his feet and grabbed David around his chest.
“What the hell do you think you are doing?” Caldwell demanded.
“I’m trying to save all of you if it isn’t too late,” David said.
“Let him go,” Angela cried.
“What are you talking about?” Traynor demanded.
David nodded toward the cylinder. “I’m afraid you have been having your meeting around a cobalt-60 source.”
Cantor leaped to his feet; his chair tipped over backward. “I saw that thing,” he cried. “I wondered what it was.” Saying no more, he turned and fled from the room.
A stunned Caldwell relaxed his grip. David immediately lunged across the table and snatched up the brass cylinder in his lead gloves. Then he rolled the cylinder in one of his lead aprons. Next he wrapped that apron in another and that one in another still. He proceeded to do the same with the aprons Angela was carrying while she stepped out of the conference room to get the others. David was anxious to cover the cylinder with as many layers of lead as possible.
As David was wrapping the last load of the aprons around the bulky parcel, Angela got the Geiger counter.
“I don’t believe you,” Traynor said, breaking a shocked silence. But his voice lacked conviction. Cantor’s sudden departure had unnerved him.
“This is not the time for debate,” David said. “Everyone better get out of here,” he added. “You’ve all been exposed to a serious amount of radiation. I advise you to call your doctors.”
Traynor and the others exchanged nervous glances. Panic soon broke out as first a few and then the remaining board members, including Traynor, ran from the room.
David finished with the last apron and took the Geiger counter. Turning it on, he was dismayed to see that it still registered a significant amount of radiation.
“Let’s get out of here,” David said. “That’s about all we can do.”
Leaving the cylinder wrapped in aprons on the table, they went out of the conference room, closing the doors behind them. David tried the Geiger counter again. As he expected, the radiation had fallen off dramatically. “As long as no one goes in the conference room, no one else will get hurt tonight,” he said.
All of the criminals die horribly, of radiation poisoning.
Back in the real world, in September of 2012, it appears that Halliburton, the company formerly run by Vice-President Dick Cheney, misplaced a little radioactive cylinder of its own.
About 7 inches long, the little device is used by the oil field services company to assess potential sites for hydraulic fracturing (fracking – Google it); they lost track of it while trying to transport it from Pecos to a well site near Odessa 130 miles away. (How that loss was permitted to happen in the first place remains a large question to which I have never seen a satisfactory answer.)
“It’s not something that produces radiation in an extremely dangerous form,” said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. “But it’s best for people to stay back, 20 or 25 feet.”
Comfortingly, the cylinder is stamped with the words “danger radioactive” and “do not handle” along with a radiation warning symbol, according to the Texas Health Department.
There’s just one problem.
By the time you get close enough to read that teeny-tiny writing, you’ve probably picked the thing up and held it about six inches from your face. Sorry, you’ve just fatally irradiated your brain. Sucks to be you.
I do hope they can locate this thing, before the ɑ-particles produced by americium-241 react in the presence of beryllium to form neutrons, which will promptly burn the hell out of whichever group of children picks it up and uses it to play catch with.
You know what I mean?
Fortunately, they did find it, about a month later per the Guardian. Also fortunately, the danger to anyone who found it would have been minimal as long as they didn’t treat it stupidly; per a comment at Livejournal, it was handled as a “non emergency” by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Operations Center.”
So this story ended happily, but the concept of unshielded radiation sources running around in the wild is something best left to the gripping medical fiction of Dr. Robin Cook and not real life.
The Old Wolf has spoken.