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How Radioactive Cleanup Works

Tools of the Radioactive Trade
Geiger counters prove indispensable when you're working with nuclear contamination.
Geiger counters prove indispensable when you're working with nuclear contamination.
Don Farrall/Getty Images

As any agency involved in the cleanup will tell you, safety is first priority. Accordingly, all personnel working among potentially harmful levels of radiation wear thick vinyl hazmat suits, masks and rubber boots capable of blocking at least a percentage of harmful radiation.

Of course, instead of relying on safety equipment to protect them, workers would rather avoid radiation altogether whenever possible. To that end, crews often carry Geiger counters that give them both the direction and intensity of a radiation source. In addition, workers may carry dosimeters, portable devices that track the amount of radiation exposure workers receive during their shift. These devices prove particularly helpful when workers know they will receive intense doses of radiation and require a warning to leave the site once that dosage approaches harmful levels.

Depending on the type of operation, crew sizes can vary greatly. At Fukushima Daiichi, a relatively small team of 300 workers struggled to stabilize the power plant so that larger cleanup efforts could begin [source: Boyle]. After the Chernobyl disaster -- widely considered to be the worst accident to ever occur at a nuclear power plant -- around 600,000 workers were involved in the cleanup, and the areas surrounding the power plant are only now safe to visit for short intervals [source: U.S. NRC].

Interestingly enough, decontamination crews often use the same mops, brooms, shovels and brushes to perform their jobs that you might find at a local hardware store.

Thankfully, human workers don't have to handle every aspect of a radiation cleanup. For instance, Germany volunteered two robots to aid in stabilizing and, ultimately, decontaminating Fukushima Daiichi. Other robots can handle everything from dismantling nuclear bombs to fixing jammed equipment in highly radioactive environments. In some cases, the robots themselves become so contaminated that they're scrapped eventually as radioactive waste.

In the case of dealing with spent fuel rods, both heat and radiation are a concern. So, workers use a whole lot of water to both cool such materials and to contain their radiation, sometimes for years at a time. Along with water, concrete, glass and dirt prove fairly effective at storing radioactive material, particularly when paired with containment vessels and storage facilities.