OAP experts checked for radiation of Ceasium-137 at the steel melting plant. Credit: OAP

Public health and environmental monitoring against the missing radioactive cylinder expanded as officials fail to confirm its recovery

Radioactive experts and concerned officials have not been able to confirm the recovery of the missing 25-kg cylinder containing radioactive Ceasium-137 despite their uncovering of the substance contaminating furnace dust extracted in a steel melting plant in Prachinburi province. They have been instructed to conduct a wider search and work coverage by their supervisor today

Prof. Dr. Anak Laothamatas, Minister of the Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation Ministry, has instructed the Office of Atoms for Peace under his ministry’s supervision to conduct a wider search for the missing radioactive cylinder, which was used to gauge levels of ash in a power plant in the province’s Srimahaphot district but was reported missing since March 10.

The minister issued his new order one day after a major press conference was held to clarify the situation to the public but rather seen as an attempt to suppress the issue, saying he had called for a meeting with concerned officials in a war room and decided that the situation was an emergency.

“It’s an incident, which needs close and immediate attention,” the minister said.

Caesium-137 is a radioactive substance that is classified as Class 3 by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and can create serious health problems, both acute and long-term, for people who come into contact with it. The symptoms reported range from skin burns following close exposure, to radiation sickness and potentially deadly cancer risks, especially for those exposed unknowingly for long periods of time, according to the Public Health Ministry.

The substance has a half-life of about 30 years, and this means it could pose a risk to people for decades to come. The substance was largely involved in the world’s major nuclear-related incidents, including Chernobyl, where it had escaped from the reactor of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, now in Ukraine, which had exploded accidentally in the late 1980s and travelled to as far as Sweden and has been contaminating parts of its environment for years.

Thailand experienced a small-scale radioactive incident concerning Cobalt-60 once in the early 2000s, and this is the second time that such a radioactive incident has happened.

As defined as an emergency, the minister has instructed the office as well as concerned agencies under the ministry to uphold advanced safety standards to ensure public safety and the health of the environment. 

An emergency centre has been set up to work with other state agencies concerned to ensure public safety and the health of the environment. They have redefined the scope of work areas, dividing it up in radius rather than focusing on the suspected steel melting plant in Kabinburi district, where its by-product of furnace dust was found to be contaminated by Ceasium-137, as informed during the press conference yesterday. 

Hene, the newly redefined first zone will focus on the innermost area covering the steel melting plant, while its next zone will then cover its adjacent areas. The third zone will cover the whole district and province, and the outermost zone covers other possible contaminated areas at a distance.

The officials at the centre are instructed to examine radiation as well as possible contamination of Ceasium-137 in the environment_the air, the water, and the soil, in “every possible location and every zone”. Their examination results must be verified and double-checked with international atomic organisations, the minister added.

Medical faculties under the ministry’s higher education supervision are instructed alongside and dispatched to help ensure public safety and monitor health impacts with the Public Health Ministry, the ministry further added.

“We need to fix the problem as soon as possible and control the situation to not allow it to become worsened. We also need to seek preventive measures against such an incident,” said Prof. Dr. Anak.

The poster released by the OAP in an attempt to find the missing cylinder. Credit: OAP

The missing radioactive cylinder

As revealed in the press conference yesterday, the missing radioactive cylinder weighing 25 kg and containing 41.14 millicuries (mCi) of Ceasium-137 was reported missing from a power plant in Simahaphot district on Mar 10, but according to the police investigation, it was reported that the plant had encountered some “errors” as earlier as Feb 17. This, however, was not reported to the police despite the nuclear law requiring any missing radioactive material to be reported to concerned agencies “immediately”. Those failing to report could face a fine worth up to Bt 100,000 or a 1-year jail term, or both.

It was not until Mar 10 that the power plant reported the incident to the police and after receiving the report, the police investigators along with concerned officials including those from the OAP began their search in possible locations. They finally narrowed down their search and focused on the steel melting plant which was around 10 km away and located in another district of Kabinburi.

Following their examination, the investigators found 24 big bags containing 24 tonnes of furnace dust which was contaminated with Ceasium-137, leading to their assumption that this could be from the melted and missing cylinder. 

 “We could not confirm at this point that it’s the cylinder. It could be or it could not be or the cylinder could still have been kept in the plant somewhere but we could not find it yet. But this material is normally registered and the OAP and we have learned that only one has gone missing. So, we have come up with our assumption that it could possibly be (that contaminating the furnace dust),” said Pol Maj Gen Winai Nutcha, commander of Prachin Buri police, who has led the police investigation.

OAP Secretary-General Permsuk Sutchaphiwat tried at the press conference to downplay public concerns about the radioactive material and its impacts, saying the melting of metal scraps for recycling was done by the melting plant in a closed system, therefore the contaminated furnace dust could not leave the system to the environment as feared.

At over 1,000 degrees Celsius used by the plant, Ceasium-137 would escape from the scraps since the temperature reached 600 degrees Celsius already. That means the recycled metal is relatively Ceasium-137 free. It would then evaporate and contaminate its by-product which was the furnace dust which was filtered in the closed system before being collected as it cooled down. 

The by-product can be further sold and extracted for zinc, the secretary-general said, but so far all contaminated dust was kept at the plant’s silo, not leaking to the environment.

“I could not say 100% that caesium-137 contaminating the furnace dust belongs to the missing cylinder. But based on the available evidence, it could be possible because the steel melting plant is just 10 km away from the power plant,” the OAP secretary general said.

What puzzles the officials the most is how the cylinder got out of its place in the power plant. 

Kitkawin Aramrun, the OAP’s senior radiation physicist, told a press conference that the team has examined the radioactive contamination in the air, the soil, and the water in a 5-km radius from the steel melting plant and found no contamination in the environment. All workers there, 70, have so far got their help checked and there are no radioactive impacts or contamination of Ceasium-137 in their bodies. The Public Health Ministry said they need to be monitored for some time to get ensured that they did not get affected by the radioactive substance.

Anti-hazardous waste campaigning organisations including EARTH, EnLaw, and Greenpeace, however, are not convinced. They have issued a statement today, rebuking the state’s management of radioactive materials and use as recklessness and non-transparency.

The group called for a thorough examination of the incident and the environment as well as risk assessments so as for the public to get assured of safety and the good health of the environment.