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Radioactive scrap causes panic in Boksburg

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radio active scare

The Star

A man measures gamma levels at Sarie Scrap Metals in Boksburg, where a truck driver was trying to sell a radioactive box. Photo: Tiro Ramatlhatse

Boksburg - A radioactive bin caused panic in Boksburg on Thursday when the area had to be evacuated.

The six-cubic-metre bin was found outside the Sarie Scrap Metals Company on Field Road off Main Reef Road in Witfield, Boksburg, on Thursday morning, but emergency services and nuclear technicians later declared the scene safe, and no injuries were sustained.

The National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) determined that the radioactivity level was 0.45 microsieverts – 22 times smaller than the 1 millisievert (mSv) limit. The amount could be deflected by a piece of paper, as opposed to the radioactivity in a medical X-ray, which can penetrate skin, said Gino Moonsamy of the NNR.

“No matter how small, we take it very seriously and we are keeping an eye on the situation,” Moonsamy said. The scrap-metal business was evacuated and the surrounding roads were cordoned off while radiation levels were checked as a precaution.

“We were scared,” said Sarie Scrap Metals employee Phillip Nong.

He said many employees were more afraid that the police would arrest them for possessing stolen metal. In his five years with the company, Nong said, he had never encountered radioactive material before.

Ekurhuleni disaster and emergency services spokesman William Ntladi said his department and the police were called to investigate the bin.

He said it contained scrap metal that was radioactive and had been dropped off illegally by a truck from another company. Ntladi said the bin, which belonged to SA Metals, was stolen by one of its drivers who had attempted to sell it to Sarie Scrap Metals.

SA Metals tracked the truck and located the box at Sarie, and called emergency services to alert them to the potential radioactivity.

Ntladi said a truck driver had dropped off the bin in the morning, drove the truck back to SA Metals and had not been seen since.

Ntladi said Boksburg North police were investigating, but spokeswoman Lieutenant-Colonel Katlego Mogale would not provide details about the incident or confirm if there was an investigation under way.

“There was no foul play, no serious injuries, so it’s an EMS (emergency services) thing,” she said.

The metal in the radioactive box came from mines, which have some natural radioactivity. Other sources of radioactive material are in the medical industry and nuclear power plants.

Most people are exposed to around 0.5 mSv to 1 mSv of natural radioactivity from the sun or the atmosphere every year, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Consultants for SA Metals were at the scene measuring gamma levels and checking for possible contamination on Thursday afternoon. Readings showed the levels were not dangerous.

“We had to evacuate everybody for safety, but now the area is declared safe,” Ntladi said on Thursday afternoon.

The technicians did a sweep of the small outdoor area and scrap garage to ensure there were no more radioactive materials. The box had been removed.

Moonsamy said the NNR followed strict international regulations and required all handlers of radioactive material to use the correct packaging to keep employees and the public safe.

He added that the regulator took all tip-offs seriously, but might not be aware of all underground or illegal transport of radioactive material. He encouraged anyone who suspected improper handling of radioactive material to contact the NNR.

karen.chen@inl.co.za, brendan.roane@inl.co.za

The Star


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