Deadly radioactive nugget missing on mainland

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 March, 2009, 12:00am

A watermelon-sized ball of lead containing a nugget of radioactive Caesium-137 has been missing in Tongchuan, Shaanxi, since Monday, probably buried under tonnes of scrap metal waiting to be smelted, an official from the city's Environmental Protection Bureau has confirmed.

The radioactive material was part of a measuring device at an old factory run by Shaanxi Qinling Cement, one of the biggest cement producers on the mainland.

'The lead container disappeared when the company was dismantling the old plant,' the official said yesterday. 'It might have been shipped to Fuping county. Our people are there, searching every pile of scrap. But so far we've had no luck.'

The city government ordered a blackout on all news of the disappearance, but Xinhua and China News Service broke the news yesterday, triggering anger among Tongchuan residents.

Resident Ma Yanjiang said he had not known about the missing radioactive material until he read about it online yesterday afternoon.

'It is horrible, I mean, to keep it a secret,' he said. 'It has been four days. There's a good chance that uninformed people could stumble over it and some ironsmith might have already shovelled it into the furnace.'

Jiang Qian, director of the tumour department at Wanjie Hospital in Zibo, Shandong, said that anybody who was exposed to the radioactive substance at close range would probably have one of the worst days of their life.

'Even from a respectable distance, Caesium-137 could burn your skin and kill your white cells,' Dr Jiang said. 'Cancer may occur soon or 10 years afterwards, and you never know.

'It is so deadly that even the bravest radiotherapists have given up using it to kill tumours.'

Caesium-137 can remain lethal for more than 30 years.

Tongchuan, a city reliant on heavy industry, had a similar incident last July, when a farmer stole and sold a similar radioactive lead container from another cement plant as scrap after sawing it open.

Zhang Lei, an engineer for the Environmental Inspection and Monitoring Centre in Suqian, Jiangsu, wrote in a paper published in the journal Radioactive Protection Communication in August that about 30 similar cases were reported on the mainland every year.

Mr Zhang said there were many loopholes in government management and inspection.

'Even hospitals do not pay much attention to this sensitive equipment,' he wrote.