How would nuclear contamination go if there had been an incident inside a building?

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I’m guessing you can’t throw the whole building away, so what would happen? Would it ever be safe to return to? For the purposes of the question, let’s say it’s contamination on the level of needing professional involvement

In: Chemistry

If it’s severe contamination they would just demolish the building slowly so as not to stir up dust and bury the lot in a hole somewhere.

You remediate it, similar to the process for asbestos or a chemical spill.

Depending on what/where, you might strip out flooring, grind surfaces or treat the affected areas with a chelating solution to bind the contamination and wash it away.

For fixed, weak contamination, you might simply make a note and paint over the area. Put down a brightly colored polymer-based paint as the base coat and then prime and paint the top coat to match the building color scheme. If you ever get wear and can see the bright base coat coming through, your rad controls team knows they need to re-paint to keep the contamination sealed.

If you can’t get the levels down, you might just post that area as one of the special zones for radiation controls and keep the non-trained folks out. A relatively minor fixed spill in the prep lab for your nuclear medicine department might be manageable if you need to use those (unique) facilities and the only people in that space are trained rad workers who are monitored under your occupational radiation exposure program.

Lots of defense and research facilities have “historical” contamination and remain in service.

You can in fact throw a whole building away. You may not have to, but any parts of it that have been exposed will be carefully torn out, disposed of, and replaced. If too large a portion is exposed, or removing the exposed portions would cause the rest to be structurally unsound, you have to take it all down. You do it carefully, to avoid kicking up dust into the air that carries the contamination, but ultimately you are throwing the building away.

Of course, in many cases if the contamination is that bad, you can’t really pull the building down safely. In that case, you might just have to leave it there, put a fence around it and put up signs telling nobody to go near. You might have to cover it up by pouring concrete all over it. You might even need to evacuate the area around it completely for a very long time.

Would it ever be safe to return? Yes, but how long depends on the degree of contamination, and whether or not the contamination could be removed. Some accident sites like Chernobyl won’t be safe for over 20,000 years. On the other hand, a small accident that can be completely cleaned up and removed, might be safe as soon as the contaminated material is removed.

It all depends on the scale of the incident. A small amount of radioactive material spilled outside of a proper container? You might just need to clean a single room of a lab, and replace anything it touched. A nuclear reactor breech? You might need to quarantine a large area of land for thousands of years.

It all depends on what sort of contamination it was, how much, and whether or not everyone involved did their best to contain it as soon as there was a problem.