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Office of Homeland Security (OHS)
Radiation Safety Division (RSD)
United States Department of Agriculture

Emergency Response Guidance





Radioactive Emergency response programs must be developed by each location that has Permit Holders. The extent of the program depends on the categories of Radiation Source Permits issued and the scope of the radioactive materials use at the location. The information and steps below can serve as the basis for the location's emergency response program.

Most emergencies encountered in a research laboratory using unsealed radioactive materials or at a location using sealed sources can be successfully handled by following four principles.

These are:

  • Assist people first;
  • Monitor all personnel involved;
  • Control the area; and
  • Call the LRPO for assistance.




Each location where there are Permit Holders working with unsealed isotopes must have emergency response procedures. These procedures should be commensurate with the scope of the program activities listed under the Permit. Above and beyond that, accidents and emergencies can happen during any operation with radioisotopes, including their transportation, use, transfer, and disposal. Such incidents can result in contamination or release of material to the environment, and unintended radiation exposure to workers and members of the public. In addition, loss or theft of radioactive material, sabotage, fires, floods, and other events can adversely affect the safety of personnel and members of the public. All of these possibilities should be considered when developing written emergency procedures. Emergency procedures should include provisions for immediate response and after-hours notification. Copies of emergency procedures should be provided to all users and posted in in each laboratory where radioactive material is used.

Additionally, post the names and telephone numbers for emergency contacts, including:

  • USDA Radiation Safety Division
    (after hours, USDA Ops Center)
  • Local Radiation Protection Officer (LRPO)
  • Permit Holder
  • Local emergency contacts

Simple Spill

  • Prevent people from walking through the area and spreading the contamination.
  • Cover the spill with absorbent paper.
  • Verify the isotope and estimate the activity involved.
  • Have someone not involved in the accident monitor people in the immediate area.
  • Survey the area to determine the extent of the contamination.
  • Mark the spill area with tape.
  • Begin decontamination efforts, working from the outer edge of the spill in to the center.

Spill involving personnel contamination

  • Make others in the area aware of the accident.
  • Keep the contaminated person in one area to prevent spreading the contamination.
  • Carefully remove the person's lab coat and gloves and place them in a plastic bag.
  • Have the person put on new vinyl gloves in case their hands are contaminated.
  • Have someone not involved in the accident monitor people in the immediate area.
  • Survey the area to determine the extent of the contamination.
  • Survey the person involved to determine the extent of their contamination.;
  • Remove all contaminated clothing, placing them in a plastic bag.
  • Begin decontamination, if necessary.

Minor accident involving skin contamination

Most skin contamination can be removed by gentle washing with a mild detergent or chelating agent. Do not scrub in a rough manner since this may allow the contamination to be absorbed into the body. Repeat the gentle washing as necessary until the contamination has been removed.


Accident involving serious injury

With very few exceptions, radioactive contamination can be ignored when it is more important to treat an injury. The fundamental tenet is First Aid First.

Call for help from others in the area. After the injury is stabilized, control the area and initiate surveys and decontamination efforts.

If emergency medical personnel have responded to the injury, advise them of the potential for radioactive contamination. If the accident victim must be transported to a hospital, the location's LRPO, or other designated individual should go to the hospital to assist in monitoring and to describe the likely extent of contamination to hospital personnel.


Accident involving internal exposure

Within the USDA research facilities, accidents involving significant internal exposure are extremely rare. A typical internal exposure would involve either hydrogen-3 or iodine-125, in quantities that would be expected to cause no immediate or long-term harm to the individual.

In the case of this type of accident:

  • Have someone not involved in the accident monitor people in the immediate area.
  • Survey the area to determine the extent of the contamination.
  • Survey the person involved to determine the extent of their contamination.

Using a Q-tip, swab the nasal passages. Place the Q-tip in a sealed plastic bag for later analysis. Have the person void their bladder. Save ALL subsequent urine in individual containers. This will be important in determining the actual amount of radioactive material ingested or inhaled.

Call the Radiation Safety Division for instruction. A member of the RSD will likely make a trip to the facility to assist in the investigation.


Waste Management

Radioactive waste resulting from a spill and its clean-up should be managed by the LRPO in accordance with the location's radioactive waste management plan.




Moisture/Density Gauges

Emergencies involving portable nuclear moisture/density gauges typically involve either the theft or loss of the gauge or an accident in which the gauge is crushed at a construction site.

As soon as it becomes known that a gauge has been stolen or is misplaced, the Permit Holder, or the individual in possession of the gauge, must immediately call the Radiation Safety Staff for assistance.

If the source fails to return to the shielded position, or if the gauge is damaged in an accident, the following steps must be taken:

  • Secure the area within 15 feet of the gauge (by roping off the area, for example).
  • Maintain the area of the accident site under constant surveillance.
  • Do not allow anyone to enter the area until emergency assistance arrives and radiation levels are known.
  • However, do not delay necessary first-aid to the injured, and move them from the area only when medically safe to do so.
  • A radiation survey must be conducted as soon as possible.
  • Do not use a vehicle or equipment involved in a gauge accident until it is evaluated for contamination.
  • Contact the Radiation Safety Division, the Location Radiation Protection Officer, Location Management, and appropriate Agency personnel. RSD will contact radiation safety personnel

Electron Capture Detectors

Electron capture detectors are sealed sources that typically do not pose a hazard in the case of a facility emergency such as a fire. If it appears that the ECD is damaged, the area around the ECD should be wiped and analyzed to determine if the source has become damaged. This should be performed prior to any other cleaning.
If the ECD is leaking, place it in a plastic bag and arrange for its return to the manufacturer, or treat it as radioactive waste for disposal.



A malfunction which may be seen to cause contamination or excessive radiation exposure constitutes an emergency. Emergency procedures should be developed to address a spectrum of incidents (e.g., interlock failure, flood, earthquake).

Emergency response procedures must, at a minimum, contain the following elements:

  • The operator shall not attempt to fix the irradiator;
  • The operator shall suspend work, and evacuate personnel;
  • The operator shall leave the irradiator room and lock the door, or otherwise control access.
  • The operator shall notify the Permit Holder, the facility LRPO, the Facility Director, and the RSD.
  • Survey areas outside the irradiator room to determine whether further restriction of the area is necessary to ensure that no one can enter the area if the radiation level exceeds 2 milli-rem per hour
  • No further action shall be taken until the cause of the emergency is determined, evaluated and remedial action is prescribed by the RSD;

Contact the RSD for further instructions and to initiate emergency response. (Telephone numbers for the responsible individuals, the irradiator manufacturer (or distributor), fire department, or other emergency response organization, and the NRC should be posted or easily accessible.)

A complete report shall be prepared detailing the circumstances of the emergency, identification of the persons involved, observed radiation levels, and duration of exposure as well as results of the area survey and any related details.


In the Event of Fire at an Irradiator Facility

In case of fire in the immediate area or in an adjacent building, operation of the irradiator shall be suspended and the irradiator shall be closed and locked;

The fire company shall be promptly notified;

Firefighters shall be advised of the potential hazard by the Permit Holder or other individual;

After the fire, the area shall be surveyed for contamination and the irradiator surveyed for any loss or change of shielding integrity before the area is opened to reconstruction or returned to service;

The USDA Radiation Safety Officer shall determine a course of action and shall notify the NRC in accordance with Federal regulations; and

A complete report shall be prepared detailing the circumstances of the fire, identification of persons involved, observed radiation levels and duration of exposure as well as results of the area survey and related details.