The town that radioactivity built

In the aftermath of Brazil's biggest urban nuclear accident, radioactive waste was buried under a provincial town, where it is a central part of the city's culture

goiania nuclear accident
Authorities in the site of the cesium-137 accident in 1987. Photo: Cnen

On the afternoon of September 13, 1987, a radiotherapy source containing the highly reactive isotope cesium-137 was taken from an abandoned hospital in Goiânia, the capital of the Center-West state Goiás. The chain of events that followed this seemingly harmless theft led to what was the world’s biggest ever urban nuclear accident, until the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

Fueled by curiosity, naïvety, and poverty, young waste pickers Roberto dos Santos Alves and Wagner Mota Pereira broke into the abandoned Goiás Radiotherapy Institute building, just outside the Goiânia city center. The institute had moved to another facility two years prior but...

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