Goiania Nuclear Accident, Brazil 1987

Meg Gerli
March 24, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Image of the Goiania where the accident occurred. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On September 13th of 1987 a nuclear incident occurred in Goiania Brazil (shown in Fig. 1). The accident was caused primarily because of radioactive contamination of an abandoned piece of hospital machinery. The incident is considered one of the top 10 nuclear disasters to date, as it is classified as a level 5 accident. [1]

The Incident

When the Goiania Institute of Radiotherapy relocated, they left behind many old hospital machines and supplies that would not play a role at their new location. An old teletherapy unit containing Cs-137 was one of the machines left in the abandoned building. Rummaging through the abandoned building, two men found the machine and sold it to a local junkyard. When employees at the junkyard dismantled the machine, the remaining Cs-137 was released. [1] "Cesium 137 is a radioactive isotope of cesium which is prevalent due to its spontaneous production, which occurs as a result of nuclear fission of other radioactive materials." [1] Employees at the junkyard were fascinated by the blue power that glowed in the dark that was hiding in the machine and unaware of its many dangers and its repercussions, they distributed it to family and friends.


As the Cs-137 spread around Goiania, individuals began getting sick and many were suffering from acute radiation poisoning. "112,000 people were examined for radioactive contamination's with 249 having significant levels of radioactive material in or on their body." [1] With the widespread contamination of Cs-137, experts from the United States and the Soviet Union traveled to Brazil to help "in a radiation accident now proving to be the most serious of its kind in the Western Hemisphere." [2] According to scientists, the government of Goiania was not prompt in its response to the emergency and did not properly recognize the magnitude of the problem. However, with the help of other authorities, the situation was contained, as contaminated areas were swept of radioactive waste and patients were properly treated.

This particular incident created widespread awareness throughout Brazil, as it reminded citizens of the many dangers that could arise due to the nuclear reactor near Rio de Janeiro, as well as the many pieces of equipment in the country that contains radioactive material. [3]

© Meg Gerli. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "The Radiological Accident in Goiânia," International Atomic Energy Agency, 1988.

[2] C. Wessells, "Cesium-137: A Deadly Hazard," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2012.

[3] M. Simons, "Brazil Gets Help on Radiation Accident," New York Times, 11 Oct 87.