Rabbit is Radioactive – Contaminated Bunny Bagged at Hanford Nuke Site

(Tri Cities, Washington) During the Cold War, liquid waste containing radioactive salts was routinely discharged into the ground near the central part of the old Hanford Nuclear Facility, in the State Washington. The salts tended to attract various animals, including rabbits.

Prior to 1969, various animal interlopers had spread radioactivity through their droppings over a 13.7 square mile area surrounding the facility. The area has since been sealed off, but occasionally, animals are able to get through, and, as is believed in this case, sip some of the water left behind from a newly demolished structure.

Such structures are typically hosed down before demolishing to prevent radioactive dust from becoming airborne. But this spraying also leaves pools of water lying around in the exposed basements that are attractive to animals. And despite chain-link fencing, vegetation removal, and lacing the perimeter with fox urine, a thirsty critter or two can still get through.

Insects can also get through, of course, and can become a vector for spreading radioactive isotopes.

In 2003, waste water discharge near soil attracted mud dauber wasps, resulting in a slew of off-site, contaminated, mud hives that had to be contained and returned to the site for “disposal”.  Not a fun job I would imagine.

Black and Yellow Mud Dauber (Sceliphron caementarium)

What tipped off Health Dept. officials was the discovery by workers last week of contaminated rabbit droppings close to one of the site’s boundaries. Had the rabbit slipped out, and a dog caught the rabbit, the contamination (i.e., acquiring of cesium atoms undergoing radioactive decay) could have easily spread to humans — although how much danger this would present to public health is not clear. Still, when it comes to radioactivity (and the spotty history of the site), Washington Closure (the operation in charge of demolishing Hanford), and the Office of Radiation Protection, aren’t taking any chance.

(Added note: Hanford has had a rigorous anti-biological vector policy in place for many years, as noted in the comment below).

Rabbits in this area of the country are typically of the genus Sylvilagus (which has 13 member species), known as ‘cottontails’ (hares are a closely related animal but are generally non-burrowing). An unknown number of unidentified rabbits were trapped and one was found to be contaminated with radioactive cesium. It is not known how the contaminated animal was treated for its exposure. Since 2009, some 33 animals have been found on the site contaminated with radioactivity, according to a figure published in the Tri City Herald, and quoted in this Seattle Times article.

It is probable that any such contaminated animals are put down and buried.

What is Radioactive Decay? From wikipedia:

Simulation of many identical atoms undergoing radioactive decay, starting with either 4 atoms (left) or 400 (right). The number at the top indicates how many half-lives have elapsed. Note the law of large numbers: With more atoms, the overall decay is less random.

Radioactive decay is the process by which an unstable atomic nucleus loses energy by emitting ionizing particles or radiation (see animation above). The emission is spontaneous in that the nucleus decays without collision with another particle. This decay, or loss of energy, results in an atom of one type, called the parent radionuclide, transforming to an atom of a different type, named the daughter nuclide. For example: a carbon-14 atom (the “parent”) emits radiation and transforms to a nitrogen-14 atom (the “daughter”). This is a stochastic (non-deterministic) process on the atomic level, in that according to quantum mechanics it is impossible to predict when a given atom will decay. However, given a large number of similar atoms the decay rate, on average, is predictable.

Rabbit photo: Larry D. Moore, cc – by – sa 3.0, derivative (radiation symbol) work by M. Ricciardi

Wasp photo:  psionicman ; cc – by 2.0

GIF animation: Sbyrnes321, public domain

  1. Michael Ricciardi

    My apologies for using the journalistically loaded term “tipped off”, when I should have perhaps used “alerted”.

    From my brief description of the prevention strategies, I presumed that most folks would grok that the folks in charge are aware of the problem and have been taking concerted steps to dealing with any and all issues of radioactivity spread, etc.

    Also: the article linked to in my piece goes into greater detail as to how the demolition operation handles these issues.

    Yes, there are worse radioactive materials than cesium, but I still wouldn’t want it sprinkled on my shredded wheat. That said, I believe I questioned the extent of the danger posed by such contamination spread to humans.

    The article does not make any comment as to the full range of the flora and fauna present around the site. I have not done, nor know anyone professionally who has done, an ecosystem inventory of the Hanford site. I’m sure a study exists somewhere.

    AS to ‘Hanford’s “spotty history”, if one has the time, try doing a general search on “Hanford Nuclear Site” (and using modifiers like “controversy”, “problems”, “violations”, “worst”, “clean up”, “illegal release”) you’ll get a better idea of what I mean.

    Hanford is the largest recipient of EPA Superfund money.

  2. Bob

    Quite a bit of fluff but an amusing read. I don’t get the reference to the Hanford “spotty history” and I would always take anything the Seattle papers print with a large grain of salt (Herald’s a little better since they are closer to the story). While you are at it, look at the Wikipedia Hanford write-up. The Hanford Site is more than aware of issues associated with biological vectors and takes these issues extremely seriously and it’s not a “tipped off” condition. There are herds of deer and elk (horses if you want to go back in time a few years) that roam the 600 miles of site. As a matter of fact, this shrub-step region has the full spectrum of flora and fauna with the Columbia River adding to the richness. The Hanford Site pre-dates most if not all environmental regulations and is currently under a consent order, the Tri-Party Agreement, between the EPA, DOE, and State of Washington (Ecology). RCRA and CERCLA are enforced. There are things more frightening than cesium (it’s easy to find a good gamma emitter) like Saran, GB, VX, MIC, transuranics, or other long-lived isoptopes.

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