Written By Joseph Siemandel, Washington National Guard
A real-world emergency was the basis of a recent exercise that tested the Washington National Guard’s 10th Civil Support Team and its ability to detect and respond to a foreign substance.
“After the event and the Department of Energy investigation was complete, we wanted to take the lessons learned and start implementing them into our training with our agency partners, but we all got busy with the COVID-19 response,” said Maj. Wes Watson, commander of the 10th CST.
Watson was referring to what some in the radiation field call a once-in-a-lifetime event. On May 2, 2019, a routine medical device decommissioning turned into “a near miss to a significant event” that could have had devastating effects in the heart of Seattle.
“It was a few months later, and I was attending a radiation summit with people from all over the country, and the incident was brought up,” said 2nd Lt. James Hanrahan, a former member of the 10th Civil Support Team who was part of the response. “When the attendees learned I was there, I was bombarded with questions wanting to know about the situation.”
On that night, at the Harborview Research and Training Building, a contractor was decommissioning a medical device called an irradiator, which contained a small amount of radioactive Cesium 137. That’s the same nuclear product that led to the Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine in 1986. The Harborview Research and Training Building sits next to the Harborview Medical Center, the designated Disaster Control Hospital for Seattle and King County, and one of the busiest medical facilities in the Pacific Northwest.
The contractor, using a mobile hot cell device called a lead box, began making a series of cuts into an aluminum tube that held the Cesium 137. During the cutting operation, the saw pierced the cesium capsule and released radiation into the mobile hot cell.
“After seeing the video, you can see the radiation leakage in the box,” said Watson. “The contractor continued to make multiple cuts before stopping.”
More than an hour after the breach of the cesium capsule, the contract team finally conducted a detection, which registered at the highest levels. However, it took another four hours to call 911. The first team on the scene from Seattle Fire was not told about the situation until they had been potentially exposed.
“I got the call from Seattle Fire at like midnight, and just the tone in their voice let me know how serious this situation was,” said Michelle Anderson-Moore, Office of Radiation Protect and Radiological Preparedness Section with the Washington State Department of Health. “My next call was to get the key players involved, and one of our best assets is the 10th Civil Support Team.”
When Watson got the call, he immediately contacted all the team members he had in the state and told them to report to the incident.
“This is the kind of event we train on but you never want to report to,” said Watson.
The team arrived at the scene shortly after midnight and assisted multiple agencies. The coordination and cooperation between agencies led to the smooth handling of what could have been a disaster.
Anderson-Moore and her team with the Department of Health used this incident to facilitate a hazardous material exercise in Seattle Nov. 3, 2021. The 10th CST, the Seattle Fire Department, Department of Health, radiation experts and observers from multiple agencies participated.
“The first thing about any response is knowing who is who, getting a common operating picture and sharing best practices and operating procedures,” said Anderson-Moore.
Using an old Army Reserve facility owned by Seattle Fire, survey team members from the 10th CST and Seattle Fire trained to detect a foreign substance like Cesium 137.
“To have a real-life response to a hazardous material, it gave us a lot of good information about things that go right and things we need to fix,” said Watson. “While the situation could have been worse, the ability to learn and grow from it is invaluable.”
The impacts of the leak were monumental. The Harborview Research and Training Building remained closed for more than two years during a multimillion-dollar clean-up. Cesium experts said the leak was small enough that no one was critically exposed but have warned it could be a potential weapon of mass destruction.
“The more time our partners get exposed to one another, the more comfortable they get and the better we can respond if we have another incident,” said Anderson-Moore.