State inspectors new watchdogs for radiation sites |
Sunday, September 19, 1999
By David Lore
It was everybody's Friday afternoon nightmare.
Just hours before quitting time for the weekend, 18 Ohio Department of Health inspectors were told they had to clean up a toxic and radioactive mess in the basement of department headquarters at 246 N. High St.
They were told to expect radioactive debris everywhere -- plus a spill of hazardous chemicals.
But at least this time, it was all make-believe.
The hazardous materials exercise Friday was the final hurdle in a weeklong training course for new inspectors in the department's Bureau of Radiation Protection.
These inspectors will have to respond to accidents involving radioactive materials at Ohio hospitals, clinics, laboratories, construction sites and industrial plants.
It's a job that, since the dawn of peacetime nuclear power in the 1950s, has been done by the federal government -- the Atomic Energy Commission in the early days and, after 1978, by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
As of Aug. 31, the state began regulating the 700 universities, hospitals and companies once licensed by the commission to handle nuclear materials. Only nuclear power plants and Department of Energy nuclear fuels plants remain under the commission.
Roger Suppes, chief of the radiation inspection bureau, is energized by the new responsibility. The relatively small agency, which previously regulated only X-ray machines and certain types of radioactive materials, such as radium, has sought expanded authority since 1991.
Ohio becomes the 31st state to assume the federal program. "Our intention is for it to be seamless,'' Suppes said.
State regulation was endorsed by the Ohio Hospital Association and the Ohio Radioactive Materials Users Group, which represents fewer than 100 of the commission's licensees.
"It couldn't possibly be seamless, but there's been so much planning that the bumps have been minimized,'' said Columbus attorney Daniel Swanson, chairman of the users group and a member of the state's Radiation Advisory Council.
State regulation probably means lower fees for most users, but possibly more oversight because the inspectors will work out of Columbus rather than Chicago, Swanson said.
Some were concerned, he said, about a loss of consistency, but state inspectors have been training with commission personnel this year to minimize confusion.
Chris Trepal remains skeptical.
"We took a position to oppose this,'' said Trepal, director of the Cleveland-based Earth Day Coalition. "I have tremendous concerns about the capability of the Department of Health to pull this off.''
Trepal described Ohio as "a tremendously contaminated state'' with a number of radioactive waste dumps, including those at the state's two nuclear power plants and its four Energy Department weapons plants.
"If you talk to people who work on radioactive waste issues, nobody gives the NRC high marks,'' Trepal said. "But I don't see any improvement switching to the Department of Health.''
Suppes, however, said his new employees average 15 years' experience with hazardous and radioactive materials. They come, he said, from the military, from hospitals, from research or industry or from the commission.
"Before NRC signed on the dotted line, they had to be satisfied Ohio met the experience requirement,'' he said.
State inspectors won't have as much inspection experience as their federal counterparts, Swanson said. "You can't help but lose expertise,'' he said.
Still, he said, the state is hiring people with strong credentials.
One member of the team, health physicist Diana Williams, for example, is 29, but said she has more than a decade of experience. "I started in the nuclear business when I was 18 years old,'' said Williams before suiting up Friday. "The power plant in my community awarded me a college scholarship, and I worked there summers and vacations as a junior health physicist technician.''
Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch