A playground in the central Prague neighbourhood of Podolí has been crowded with, not children, but radiation specialists since Wednesday evening, when the park was found to have up to a five times the normal levels of background radioactivity. On Thursday that reading was raised to 1000 times normal levels at the various source points under the earth. While it is not necessarily dangerous – unless one were to stand over the source for an hour or more – authorities rushed to identify what could possibly be causing the radioactivity, finding a radon needle of the sort once used for cancer treatment. Meanwhile discovery of the radiation was as unusual as the fact itself. Computer engineer Pavel Bykov, happened to be the right man in the right place:
“I was just walking down the street minding my own business, as they say. I went to the playground where I sometimes go with my wife and son. And my watch, which has a built in Geiger counter, started to beep. That was not normal, because for as long as I’ve had that watch – and I haven’t had it for that long, though I have followed the field of nuclear physics for some time as an amateur – I’ve never seen those kinds of radiation levels. So I thought it was just a device malfunction. I sent my wife and kid away from the playground and ran home to get my other Geiger counters – I have several of them – to confirm the finding. And once I confirmed that there were very high levels of radiation I called the emergency services and explained the situation. So the chemical unit of the fire department came and, yes, everyone was in disbelief.”
And how strong were the radiation levels?
“At about one meter from the source, so not at the source, we measured about 500 microsieverts per hour, which is much higher than normal, basically the dose you would normally get in one year.”
In the hours since this discovery there has been much suspicion on the internet that someone equipped with a Geiger counter in their watch and more such equipment at home could stumble upon such a thing.
“Yes, it was like winning the lottery. I’m sure there is going to be a lot of talk about this as well. I’ve followed the field of nuclear physics as a hobby for about eight years, so I’m not really new to it, but it is a coincidence that something like that happened.”
Later on Thursday afternoon a specialised company hired to dig in the source area turned up a tiny metal rod, two centimetres by two millimetres in size, which was then taken away for study. The likelihood is that the material inside it is radium 226, which was formerly used in needle form as a cancer treatment. The question remains however, how it got to the playground. The material was closed inside the rod and should therefore not have left the park contaminated, however the town hall of Prague 4 says it will be checking other parks and schools in the area.