The Orange Cloud of Death

I’m at the National Radiological Emergency Preparedness Conference this week, and it reminds me of one particular radiological emergency that I wasn’t prepared for (for which I wasn’t prepared?). The parenthetical comment is there so I don’t end the sentence with a preposition. (

It happened in 1970, at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in the Inner Sub-Pile Room. A room you won’t find on your Clue board, and Colonel Mustard wasn’t involved, although the color of the gas-to-come reflected his name. The Inner Sub-Pile Room name implies that there is an Outer Sub-Pile Room (which in turn implies that there is a Pile Room somewhere above, but we’ll ignore that).The Outer Sub-Pile Room was where I was stationed when the Orange Cloud of Death chased my tech out of the Inner one. Is all that clear?

The incident took place in the middle of the night. They had a nuclear reactor in those days, used for research, and for creating super-cockroaches to be used in the inevitable Asian land war. But once again, I digress. I was in charge of a graveyard-shift crew that was tasked to clean the radioactive contamination out of a stainless-steel sump in the ISPR (that’s my new acronym so I don’t have to keep typing Inner Sub-Pile Room. Oops, I did it again. (Quick – who sang the song?)) (Nested parentheses – you’ve got to love that.)

I should call this story the Parenthetical Comment because I can’t seem to stop.

Anyway, the ISPR is this little concrete cave below the reactor. You had to crawl through a short tunnel into a room about the size and shape of a refrigerator laid on its side, and all it had in it was pipes and this sump – a kitchen-sink sized tub recessed into the floor.

I referred to the guy being chased by the OCoD (Orange Cloud of Death) as a tech, and that might be overstatement. In actual fact, he had about a sixth-grade education and his response to most conversations was to grab his crotch in a pre-Michael Jackson move and say “I’ve got your (fill in the blank) right here.” His qualifications to be working on a nuclear reactor were suspect. But then, so were mine.

Picking up where I left off three paragraphs ago, I was in the OSPR, biding my time waiting for the “tech” to complete his task. That was to take container of nitric acid and swab the steel sump to clean it. He was fully clothed in protective gear – gloves, plastic coveralls, hood, and a respirator to filter the air he was breathing – and supposed to work for a very specific amount of time for radiation exposure control purposes. Well before that time, the air-lock door to the ISPR opened and he came running out. My initial reaction was “What the …,” and then I saw the OCoD following him and realized we had a situation.

We closed the air lock doors, capturing the cloud, and then I had to figure out what it was and what to do. This is where my own suspect qualifications came into play. With no outside communications readily available, I decided that the solution was to get the acid out of the sump and stop whatever reaction was going on. So I put on all the protective gear and the emergency breathing gear (a scuba tank for dry land) and went in myself.

Let me set the mood. It’s probably 3 AM plus/minus, the rooms are mostly dark, it’s deathly quiet, my only backup is in the OSPR mumbling, “I’ve got your orange cloud right here,” and it’s crowded. Claustrophobia crowded. The trip in, with my crawling further impeded by the air tank, was quite unnerving. Getting the acid soaked up in rags and into many layers of plastic bags was simple enough, and the story might have ended happily if only the alarm hadn’t gone off.

My training with the Scott Air-Pac was woefully inadequate, and while I knew there was a finite amount of air in there, and that you would be alerted when it was getting low, I had never actually heard the alarm, and certainly not echoing off the concrete walls of an underground mausoleum. So when it went off, I had a seizure and banged my head on the ceiling, knocking the face mask loose, and getting a breath of what smelled like decomposing rust.

After I repositioned the mask, and determined I hadn’t done anything untoward in my pants, I gathered up my acid-soaked, plastic-wrapped rags, and backed the hell outta there. I stripped off the protective gear and got dressed, and we waited for the day shift to arrive at 7 to take over. By then, both of us had developed some unusual breathing symptoms, and we were eager for diagnosis and reassurance.

The Project Manager was understandably nervous about the problem (it was his idea to use the nitric acid) and dispatched us to the hospital for checking over. The problem, as it turned out, was that nitric acid and steel produce fumes that can cause severe lung damage and even death. (

According to the doctor who examined us, the solution was copious amounts of beer administered by cheap floozies. Years later I discovered this was not true. Floozies are never cheap – there’s always a price to be paid.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Orange Cloud of Death

  1. Love this blog I’ll be back when I have more time.

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