Idaho State Journal
Idaho State Journal

INEEL radiation levels increased after wildfire sweeps across site

By Anne Minard
Journal Staff Writer
Friday, August 25, 2000

POCATELLO - New data shows levels of alpha, beta and gamma radiation at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory were higher after wildfires swept across the site in late July and early August.
The Environmental Science and Research Foundation released its findings last week that showed gross alpha contamination was up after the fires. Department of Energy Spokesperson Brad Bugger has said those increases were expected and normal, as the result of particles attached to dust stirred up in the fires.
Cesium-137 was detected in samples collected between Aug. 11-13 at the oversight program's Big Lost River Rest Area monitoring site. Samples collected later in the same week showed no cesium-137.
"I'm not surprised by our findings," said Doug Walker, a scientist with the oversight program. "However, none of the post-fire concentrations present any appreciable increase in health risk to the public."
Steve Hopkins of the Snake River Alliance, an Idaho-based nuclear watchdog group, hesitated to agree with the program's assessment.
"I would say any increase in gamma radiation does definitely present an increased concern," he said. "There are experts who contend that any increase in radiation leads to an increase in terms of health effects."
Brad Bugger said the fires didn't burn through any areas slated for cleanup. But they did burn in an area contaminated with low levels of cesium and strontium, both gamma emitters. The area had been approved for industrial use by state and federal agencies, Bugger said. It had been released from any cleanup processes because the contamination was deemed low enough to warrant "no action" in an assessment.
On Wednesday Bugger said it is still unclear whether the cesium-137 came from INEEL on-site operations or off-site sources, which could include fallout from worldwide nuclear releases, he said.
"That cesium-137 spot was just northwest of the INTEC," he said, referring to an area in the southwest part of the site. "The monitoring site was not downwind from the contamination area under normal conditions. The typical wind pattern there is from the southwest to the northeast," Bugger said. The cesium-137 was detected southwest of the contaminated area, or upwind.
Hopkins disagreed.
"I would say its more likely it would be on-site," he said.
Site officials are still waiting for the results of specific tests to indicate indicate whether the elevated alpha levels their tests found are a result of naturally occurring radiation, resuspended fallout from worldwide nuclear tests and disasters, or radioactive particles that could be attributed to operations at the INEEL.
Alpha radiation describes the release of positively charged particles from radioactive elements including radon and uranium. Alpha radiation can be absorbed by living tissues. Beta radiation, by contrast, comprises negatively charged particles with the ability to penetrate tissues. Gamma radiation, the third type, involves the emission of a single positively-charged particle and is also known to be able to penetrate.