Cobalt-60 front page story removed from Southern Metropolis Daily

Posted by Joel Martinsen, December 15, 2009 1:37 PM
Southern Metropolis Daily
December 15, 2009
Original front page with cobalt-60 headline

Update (2009.12.16): The original front page has been restored on the Southern Metropolis Daily website, the report is available on the Internet news portals that had previously deleted it, and other Chinese media outlets picked up the story for yesterday's evening editions.

"48-day malfunction for cobalt radiation source in Panyu," announced the top headline on today's Southern Metropolis Daily.

At least it did until the paper was ordered to change the front page and de-emphasize the story inside.

The report described how a cobalt-60 source at the Guangzhou Research & Development Center for Irradiation Technology remained exposed for 48 days after getting stuck on October 12. A robot finally cleared the obstruction and returned the radioactive material to its shielded container on November 28.

When the accident occurred, authorities paired a need for transparency with the requirement that the government be the sole source of information about the situation as a way of avoiding a repeat of the cobalt-60 panic that struck Qixian, Henan earlier this year.

It now seems like the government did its rumor-quashing job too well: the public was utterly unaware of the situation, something that has locals fuming. From the Soufun BBS:

At the Guangzhou Irradiation Center across the from the Qifu Hotel, a cobalt-60 radiation source got stuck for 48 days! And the news is only coming out now!

Damn it! Blasted government! We've been irradiated for 48 days! Cobalt-60 gives you leukemia!

The government said they already announced the news in October. Who knew! Fuck!

Did you hear about it?

The government had indeed issued a notice on October 16, four days after the problem occurred, and the day after the Ministry of Environmental Protection had sent down a memo. However, it did not disclose the extent of the problem, and implied that it had basically been resolved:

Guangzhou Research & Development Center for Irradiation Technology is located in Zhongcun, Panyu District. The center uses radioactive sources to irradiate objects for germ-killing and sterilization. At 9pm on October 12, 2009, during the irradiation process at the center, a misaligned object caused a mechanical failure, and as a result, the radioactive material was unable to be returned to its storage location.

After the incident, relevant departments immediately organized experts to perform an on-site inspection. Radiation is currently at safe levels, and the situation has been largely brought under effective control. Work to eliminate the failure is currently proceeding along scientific lines. Expert measurements revealed that the malfunction was "frightening but not dangerous." No radiation leakage occurred, there was no environmental pollution, and there were no radiation injuries."

October 16, 2009

According to the SMD timeline, on the 16th the team of experts was still deliberating how to determine the extent of the problem. It was only on the 17th, after conducting detailed simulations, that they decided to drill a hole in the irradiation room to allow the insertion of a camera.

On the same day they also prepared emergency measures should the situation worsen: in the case of a radiation leak, they would flood the enclosure.

A camera-equipped robot was flown in and made its first entry into the irradiation room on the 19th. However, the device's power cable got stuck as it navigated the cramped layout of the room.

That night, flammable material inside the room caught fire and incinerated everything inside:

"To this day we do not know what caused the fire. To stop the goods from igniting under the influence of the radiation, the company had continually sprayed the shelves with water to lower the room temperature," said one informed source, who suggested that the fire may have been caused by polyethylene sheets (whose ignition point is low). A food irradiation expert said that food and other materials catch fire easily under long-term exposure to radiation: "A 900,000-curie radiation source is equivalent to the heat given off by a 10,000-watt electric arc furnace."

"The fire added to the difficulty of situation. There were lots of obstructions on the ground, and after the fire, more shelves were leaning against the radiation source, which added quite a bit to the time required to manage the situation," said an informed source. After the affair was resolved, it was discovered that the heating and cooling of the irradiation room wall during the fire and its extinguishing had stripped off a large amount of concrete. The wall, which had been around 2.2 meters thick, was now down to 2 meters.

On October 21, the Guangzhou Daily and the Information Times each published a single-paragraph report claiming that the situation had been brought under control and that there was no radiation danger, repeating the familiar refrain about expert tests showing no leakage, no pollution, and no injuries.

Over the course of the next month, the experts sent in further robots to clean up the damage and remove obstructions. From time to time, short reports emphasizing smooth progress were published in the Guangzhou Daily. One sentence long, these reports were virtually identical and provided no context to the news that work was proceeding in an orderly fashion. One such report, published on November 24, noted only that experts had achieved "stage 1 goals" and that the situation was not harmful.

However, in the course of their investigation, Southern Metropolis Daily reporters found that no one in the surrounding area was aware of the incident at all.

And now the paper's report has been suppressed, despite its extensive supplemental and background information on food irradiation, similar mechanical failures, and reassurances from scientists that the situation was never dangerous.

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