Lessons from the 1976 Americium Accident at Hanford

Eugene H. Carbaugh CHP
Staff Scientist and Manager, Hanford Internal Dosimetry
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Richland Washington USA


On August 30, 1976 an americium-241 ion exchange column exploded in a Hanford Site waste management facility causing significant damage to the hood containing the column, extensive facility radiological contamination, and spraying an operator with highly contaminated nitric acid and debris. The worker underwent medical treatment for acid burns, as well as wound debridement, extensive personal skin decontamination and long-term DTPA chelation therapy for decorporation of americium-241. Because of the contamination levels and prolonged decontamination efforts, care was provided for the first three months at a unique emergency decontamination facility with gradual transition to the patient's home occurring over another two months. The accident underwent an extensive investigation as to cause, response, lessons learned, therapy, and dosimetry, and has been well documented in numerous reports and journal articles. The room in which the accident occurred has been essentially isolated from entry since the accident, and only recently has effort begun to decontaminate and decommission the facility. This year 2011 marks the 35th anniversary of the accident. The lessons learned with regard to patient treatment and effectiveness of therapy still form the underlying philosophy of treatment for contaminated injuries. Changes in infrastructure and facilities as well as societal expectations make for interesting speculation as to how responses might differ today.