First hand account from Idaho National Lab -
Half-Life: How an Accident at the Idaho National Laboratory Changed a Family
Years after he was exposed to radiation, a man fights to tell his story
[snip] . . . Braase was nervous about going forward with the work. He wiped the outside of the clamshell with a piece of paper and fed the swab into a radiation detector, but found no trace of contamination.
Wearing two pairs of gloves and standing behind a plate of lead shielding, Stanton took the clamshell into his hood. Several filters lined the back wall of the hood, but a few months before, Stanton had noticed three of the four exhaust fans weren’t working. He didn’t like that, and had brought it up to his supervisors, but they hadn’t been fixed yet. He didn’t push it.
He opened the clamshell to reveal the plutonium plate wrapped in several layers of plastic and duct tape. It had sat in the vault like that for more than 30 years. Braase again swabbed for contamination and, again, found none.
Stanton sawed through the first layer with a box cutter. He turned over the plate and cut off the next. He flipped it over three or four times, getting closer to the stainless steel that separated him from the plutonium.
Braase said he heard fellow nuclear facility operator Brian Simmons, who has refused to comment to the press pending mediation in a court case, say, “I seen something fall out.” As the workers gathered around, Braase heard him say it again. “Yeah, I seen something fall out. We’ve got powder.”
Stanton said this is where he “puckered.” He looked at Simmons, thinking, “Man, I hope that’s not what we think it is, or we’re hosed.”
Stanton feared the contamination was alpha radiation. While alpha radiation isn’t strong enough to penetrate someone’s skin or clothes, it can be extremely poisonous if inhaled.
Braase grabbed a sample of the powder and threw a wet towel over it to keep it from going airborne. He reached for a handheld alpha radiation detector. Normally, the detector has to be a quarter inch away from the subject to pick up radiation. As far as three inches from the swab, the needle bounced into the red.
“Stop the work,” Braase said. Based on the distance from the sample and the reading on his monitor, he knew his colleagues were being dosed with far more radiation than they could safely–or legally–be exposed to.
“We’ve got to get Ralphie out of there,” he said.
But Braase couldn’t let Stanton out of the hood until he was checked for contamination. Running a detector over his Stanton’s body, Braase was shocked to find alpha radiation on his shoulder.
“No, Ralph, you can’t come out,” Braase said. What he thought was, “Oh shit.”