It was 4 June, 2021, and the sun was so hot that two workers took off their overalls and protective helmets. They were located in a field in the immediate vicinity of Iđoš. In front of them stretched the endless plain of Vojvodina.
Radoslav Miljković and his colleague Radomir Stehlik, thirty years younger, were checking whether gas pipelines had been damaged. They took turns in “throwing” a cable into the channel from a contraption similar to a metal box, as if fishing on dry land. At the top of the cable, instead of a hook, there was a camera. Just like an X-ray machine, it can record the condition of the pipes through the ground.
The device has a radioactive part in it, so because of the danger attached to this type of work, one older and one younger worker usually carry it out. Radoslav says that he always looked after Radomir as if he were his son.
Everything seemed like another regular working day, but then Radoslav heard something like when a pebble falls into water. He knew they were in danger.
“Rade, run!” shouted the older colleague.
A small part, the size of a grain of wheat, had fallen out of the device. Its size could be deceiving because that part is radioactive and therefore highly dangerous. Smaller doses of radiation can lead to nausea, headache and fever, but larger doses damage organs, can cause cancer and even death.
They went to the company they were working for and from there, they called the Serbian Radiation and Nuclear Safety and Security Directorate and the Vinča Institute of Nuclear Science.
They were told to go back and secure the field, and that they would come tomorrow. Both were also ordered not to move from the place where the radioactive part fell out.
They spent the night in the car. They could not sleep.
A day later: Searching for a grain of wheat in a field
Early in the morning, a remediation team from the Directorate and Vinča’s laboratory Zaštita (Protection) arrived in Iđoš.
The radioactive part was in a channel about a meter deep, covered with mud. Too tiny to know exactly where it is or to get it out without irradiating someone.
Radoslav recalls that the idea of the operator from Vinča was to leave it there.
“We just throw in a piece of lead, leave it there,” Radoslav explains. “Thus, the radiation would be zero on the surface of the earth. End of story.”
However, as Radoslav says, the Directorate’s representative, inspector Vladimir Janjić, demanded that the source be dug up. Documentation obtained by the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) shows that Janjić had not passed the inspector exam at that time.
The Directorate said that in addition to Janjić, their director and another inspector were also out in the field, as well as that leaving the source of radiation there would be illegal and “contrary to the principles of safe radioactive waste management”.
The excavator sputtered and scooped up a large amount of soil with its metal bucket. Instead of a solution, there was a new problem. The source was now in the open, so there was a higher risk of radiation spreading.
The police, firefighters, and other people from Vinča came, but the part could not be safely removed. A change of tactics ensued. The idea was to find the radioactive source in the lump of soil and then pack them together in a protective container. Two hours later, the only result was that Vinča’s workers had been irradiated.
The work for the day was finished.
For Radoslav and Radomir, it was another night filled with uncertainty spent in car seats.
Two days later: Part into box, box into van, van onto truck
The new team from Vinča spent hours trying to find the radioactive part. The mud mixed with the grass had hardened and could no longer be dug with shovels, so a new plan was needed.
This time they decided to dig up the lump of earth containing the radioactive part, which would then be placed in a lead-coated metal box. That protective box would be loaded onto Vinča’s van, which would eventually transport the source to Belgrade.
When they started doing this, they realized that the protective box would still not be able to protect the van driver from radiation.
And then it dawned on them: that the entire van, which contains the metal box with the part, should be loaded onto a truck with a trailer. So, like a Russian babushka, the radioactive part into a lump of soil, the lump of soil into a box, the box into a van, the van onto a truck.
Vinča workers no longer wanted to participate because they had already been exposed to large doses of radiation, according to the report of the Directorate obtained by CINS. One of them just gave the policeman the keys to the van, and the team from Vinča packed up and left.
“It’s like if the doctor said ‘here’s my scalpel, now you operate as best as you can’. That is the responsibility of the director of the Laboratory,” says the former Director at Vinča, Jagoš Raičević.
Marija Šljivić-Ivanović, who heads this laboratory, did not want to speak to CINS.
Another day passed. The radioactive part remained in the field that night, just like the two workers.
Three days later: Working without Vinča
The clock is ticking, the days are going by, and the problem still hasn’t been resolved. Without Vinča in the field, it was necessary to figure out what to do next.
In the morning, a meeting was held between representatives of the Directorate and the company where the workers were employed.
They gave up on the Babushka operation and agreed that the part should be pulled out of the ground, and then transferred to a container where such sources of radiation are usually kept.
“From that mud, 200 grams of soil were taken out and placed in buckets in which concrete is carried,” explains Radoslav. “It was monitored on devices that measure radiation. ‘It’s not in this one, it’s not in this one… it’s in this one, stay away.’ (…) That’s how the job was done.”
The container was then placed in Vinča’s van, and escorted by the police and fire brigade to the temporary warehouse of a private company in Pinosava.
Jagoš Raičević believes this should not have been done.
“The source that was extracted from the mud belongs to radioactive waste. All radioactive waste must go to the public company Nuclear Facilities of Serbia (NOS), which is not mentioned anywhere in the report.”
Not only that, but the employees of this company could have also helped in finding the radioactive part, since they have permission to do so. However, no one from the Directorate called them. Sources with whom CINS spoke claim that the directors of these two institutions were in conflict.
The Directorate says that the radioactive source was not even treated as waste because it was not damaged. In a response we received from them, they shift the responsibility for not contacting NOS to the company for which Radoslav and his colleague were working.
The radioactive source arrived in Pinosava in the evening. Although the story with the radioactive part ended there, problems for Radoslav were just starting.
Two years later: Irradiation and work ban
The residents of Iđoš, whose houses are a few minutes’ walk from the event site, had no idea what was happening in their vicinity.
CINS journalists visited Iđoš at the beginning of this year, but the residents we spoke to were not aware of this. One of the neighbors heard about the loss of the part, but not from the authorities. The entire event remained hidden from the public until recently, when Insajder reported on the loss of the source and the exposed workers.
We found Radoslav in his house near Niš. He is a colorful character, who, while talking about this search for a radioactive needle in a haystack, was squinting with seriousness above the spectacles that cover almost half of his face. Although he is inside his house, he never takes off his blue woolen cap.
That Friday, when all this happened, was his last day working with radioactive sources.
Workers who work with radiation in the field wear devices that measure whether they are irradiated during work. The dose of radiation they can be subjected to is clearly defined – on average 20 millisieverts per year, but never more than 50 per year.
The Directorate’s report claims that Radoslav’s device measured as much as 962 millisieverts. According to the report, his younger colleague received about half of that dose. Still much more than allowed.
However, other documentation and Radoslav’s statements show that the doses received were not that high.
He says, for example, that the devices remained attached to work suits that they took off due to the heat.
“When we work for NIS, there are no short sleeves, you have to be in the work area, helmet on. Even if it’s 40 degrees out there, the work suit must be with you. But after five hours, there is no supervision, there is no one there… We throw it away. It’s very hot.”
After the findings from June, mentioned in the report, Radoslav had another check-up in October. Dr. Želmira Ilić, radiological protection subspecialist, analyzed these findings for CINS and says that a great improvement has been noted, which makes no sense to her.
“I don’t see how anyone can recover so quickly. It doesn’t happen that quickly at that age. That could work for a 19-year-old.”
Radoslav was banned from working in radiation zones for five years. He did not lose his job at the company, he now just works with other machines and is not exposed to radiation. After everything, he is disappointed.
“Who are you banning, the person who saved you? I asked them several times.”
He also claims that some pieces of information from the official report are not true, and that some have been omitted. That’s why he feels particularly bad.
“I’ve been doing this for years. I am a Level 1 operator, there is no higher level. (…) And when I have such a certificate, and someone is trying to make a fool out of me, forcing me to do something completely wrong and how it’s not supposed to be done… Dangerous mistakes. And who is to blame? Me.”