1. Time is now to get a nuclear spill-over PR handle on this incident early to nip any caustic rumors and malicious speculations in the bud. Here’s the time for NEI and ANI and company to start issuing public enlightenment statements to the media — even if they’re trashed. The antis won’t wait to stain fact with doubt and fear.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  2. I may be wrong but I really dont see this as a nuclear power issue but one more related to weapons materials.

    I was really wondering about this situation but found no info on further investigation. Namely I was wondering what were the dispersal mechanisms. Now that I see the detection is so sensitive I guess it wouldn’t take much to get readings.

    No stories I saw referenced any real numbers in what was released or the concentration. I think thats ridiculous Rod by any standard for a industrial incident. It just leads to wild speculation and innuendo.

    1. @John

      Though not involving energy production-related materials, I thought it was of interest to Atomic Insights readers. If nothing else, I hope you find the facts useful in answering questions from friends and colleagues.

      1. No doubt. Like I said I couldn’t find any info whatsoever anywhere else despite the rather intense media buz. I think you were one of the few people if not the only person that actually followed up as odd as that seems considering the resources in big media.

        At first I was wondering if it had to do with the truck fire there a bit ago, but evidentially not. I guess with detection equipment that sensitive it could be a very minor leak/rupture and dust/gas just stirred around by the ventilation system.

      2. Great job, Rod. One thing to mention about WIPP ventilation is its great design, 425,000 cubic feet per minute flow that can be diverted to HEPA and then decreased to 100,000 cfm. The system is designed such that air flow is always over people before waste and then exhausted so anything coming from the waste cannot contact people. The system worked beautifully. It will take some time to determine the source, but one incident in 15 years is awfully good. WIPP has disposed of almost 100,000 cubic meters of waste, some fairly high-level (>7 Ci/liter), hotter than anything left in the Hanford tanks. Now WIPP is merely nearly perfect.

  3. Does anyone know how many Becquerels you would detect from the Am241 in a household smoke detector? It could be a good reference for people who don’t know much about radiation.

    1. You know I found one of those gray phallic D battery radiation detectors in my dads old surplus end of the world stuff and it still worked.

      I forget which tube I put in it (gamma(?) I think but being in north central fla in mine-able phosphate/uranium country I expected the plumbing/aeration/holding tanks around my well and water heater to set it off – NOTHING. Rocks, the lawnmower, the car, the dogs, cat, bananas and everything else – nothing either.

      But It went crazy next to the smoke detector. Id like to know the answer to that too.

      1. Those things had very poor sensitivity. Probably in the neighborhood of the source in the fire detector. Areas that a survey team would have cleared for normal access back then would now be quarantined for life with todays equipment. The newer friskers and portal access monitors can tell if you had an MRI the day before. If it has a headphone jack listen with it out in the open, so as to get background counts. If you do not hear any clicks or fewer than 5 to ten per minute it is rather poor. Try the end of a florescent light bulb (40 watt tube). Years ago that used to be radioactive, not sure any more if they are or not now. An old Fiesta Ware cup, plate etc. that is Orange (orange glazing is from “yellow cake”) will also make it click, but it has to be an old one, like one your mom got when she got married. New ones use a different source for the orange glaze. The increased sensitivity is another problem with ALARA. the sensitivity has probably doubled several times in the last 50 years, probably more like an order of magnitude more sensitive.

        The detector that set off the alarm (article above) works like a filter that you would count pollen with. A vacuum pump draws the air through a filter, any particles get trapped by the filter. Next to the filter is usually a scintillation detector (very sensitive, thinner than a razorblade edge) which is on the end of a photo-multiplier tube. Any disintegration of radioactive material will cause the scintillation crystal to fluoresce. That gets amplified by the Photomultiplier tube and makes a count. Usually the filter paper will be changed every day, week, month, on a basis as to what level they are trying to measure. I would bet even money that the filter paper got contaminated while installing it in the detector. The tech could have placed it on the cabinet after taking it out of envelope it was in before installing it in the detector. The ones at TMI would get set off when the wind was blowing toward TMI from the three unit coal burner just three miles south of the plant, for several days in a row.

        1. @Rich Lentz

          I would bet even money that the filter paper got contaminated while installing it in the detector. The tech could have placed it on the cabinet after taking it out of envelope it was in before installing it in the detector. The ones at TMI would get set off when the wind was blowing toward TMI from the three unit coal burner just three miles south of the plant, for several days in a row.

          The detector with the reported levels was from a monitoring station located six tenths of a mile away from the WIPP exhaust. There is little to no chance of it having been accidentally contaminated. The isotopes measured could not have been coming from burning coal; they are not naturally occurring.

          Note: Am-241 is, of course, an isotope that has widespread commercial and residential use and can probably be detected occasionally from places like incinerators.

        2. As a chemist, let me thank you for that fascinating glimpse into the sort of routine yet highly specialised analysis involved in radiological monitoring.

        3. THANKS! The stuff about the TMI detectors and you guys subsequent conversation was extremely interesting.

          The detector I found (I braved the mega palmetto bugs to retrieve the manual as I couldn’t find searching on line) is bare bones for sure. None of those highfalutin meters or lights – just sticky earphones.

          ( http://www.radiology-museum.be/English/Collection/RecordInfoObject.asp?Record=O-571 )

          The gray tube and the thiner extension that has the detector tube are all you carry around with the headphones coming out of the back. As one might expect the whole thing also vibrates when you turn it on.

          I may have some old florescent tubes in the shed to try it on. I might have some of those old lantern mantels as well (they had a little thorium at one time). I ll break out again sometime.

          Anyway when I was looking on line for this one I noticed a plan for a homemade one that is rather simple yet kinda interesting. Evidentially you could make it on the fly for those annoying nuclear wars that occurred before you had time to shop and prepare:

          Kearny Fallout Meter ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kearny_Fallout_Meter )

          1. Looked at those articles. Looks a little like building a boat in a bottle (difficulty wise.)
            I made a Neon Lamp Relaxation Oscillator while on the sub. Got it to count exactly 100 times per minute away from the reactor. I noticed that when I carried it toward the Reactor compartment it sped up enough to notice that I was blinking faster. Don’t remember the count but was amazed it did. Years later I determined that Neon lamps have what the manufactures call “dark effect.” You have probably noticed that on the inexpensive power strips that when it is dark the power lamp is off, but if you turn on the lamp in the room or shine a flashlight on the power strip it glows again. That is “Dark Effect.” I guess the radiation from the reactor lowers the ignition voltage of the lamp and thus it blinks faster.

            Perhaps that could be “calibrated” and used as a warning device. Could even be adjusted so that it would not blink at all unled the radiation was at or above a “safe” limit. Would require a calibrated power source though. Mine was just 5 or six used 22 volt batteries that were used in one of the instruments onboard.

  4. Hi Rich, you’re right, these high-volume ambient aerosol collect only particulates, like pollen. But the ones we put at WIPP and environs are special. They are 20 x 25 cm Gelman A/E™ glass fiber filters that collect at a flow rate of ~1.13 m3 min-1. After collection, they’re removed using special handling protocols and taken back to the CEMRC radlabs and analyzed for selected radionuclides, including 238Pu, 239+240Pu and 241Am. Following 6 hr of heating in a muffle furnace at 500° C, which drives off organics, the tracers and the iron carrier are added and each filter is treated with HF+HNO3 up to the complete decomposition of silica. Then it is treated with conc. HClO4 and HNO3 for the removal of fluoride ions. The actinides are then separated as a group by co-precipitation on Fe(OH)3. The nuclides of interest are precipitated with LaF3, deposited onto filters, mounted on planchettes, and counted on an Oxford Oasis alpha spectrometer for five days. Gamma-emitters are measured in the air filters by Gamma spectrometry for 48 hours. We routinely get to the femtoCi level.

    An important finding of our earlier studies was that the activity of Pu and the concentration of Al in aerosols were correlated and this was driven by the resuspension of dust particles contaminated with radioactive fallout from past nuclear weapons tests. Similar results were found for Am and Al. Related studies of soils collected on and near the WIPP site have shown that correlations exist among Al and both naturally-occurring and bomb-derived radionuclides including 239+240Pu.

    If you’re interested, check out the annual reports at http://www.cemrc.org (I was Director there from 2004 to 2010). It is a very nice facility with great scientists.

    1. Jim, thanks for some interesting details. It is depressing to see how much of our money is being wasted pandering to the irrational fear of very low level radiation, making nuclear technology more expensive than it should be.

    2. Now I am, confused. How does a Continuous Air Monitor alarm work continually if you have to take out the filter and do every thing you said? Both Rods article and the linked article refer to an alarm on a “Continuous Air Monitor.” That to me means there is a detector facing the “dirty,” collected side of the filter medium.

      Or are you describing what takes place AFTER one has alarmed and the facility wants to determine exactly what caused the alarm?

      1. The Continuous Air Monitors (CAM) view the collection filter in real time with a ‘surface barrier diode’ alpha detector. The intake air with particles is drawn aerodynamically around the disk detector and impinged on the surface of the filter. The detector has sufficient ability to sort the various alpha energies from 241Am/238Pu and 239/240Pu along with various short lived progeny of 220/222Rn, most of the time. There are technical issues with dust overmass on the filters over time as well as interference from straggling energies of the radon progeny. (The air between the filter and the CAM detector is also ‘overmass’.) That’s the natural environmental stuff and is a confounding interfering background for the live performance. In order to overcome the interference of overmass, the filters are changed periodically for retrospective assay as Dr. Conca describes The former is in-situ, the latter is destructive in the lab. Due to the ultra low incidence of material, it takes a lot of effort to perform the real time as well as the lab activity. It’s not cheap, but it’s VERY sensitive. Sensitivities with the high volumes are typically less than 2e-14 uCi/ml, not very many atoms.

  5. “can tell if you had an MRI the day before”

    Quibble: MRIs don’t use anything radioactive. Perhaps a PET scan?

    1. Correct. should have been PET or CAT as I believe that also requires an injection of a tracer. Not a doctor and only had one of those in my life.

  6. Not to start an argument, but there are only 2 cams underground. Maybe 7 PAS samplers. The only air monitored is from the exhaust of active panels.
    If the ventilation worked and flowed as designed, there shouldnt of been hours of smoke pouring out of the salt shaft the day of the fire.
    Lastly, and I too speak from experience, how much plutonium-radioactive isotopes in your lungs is ok? NONE We all know why the action limits are there, and putting icing on a dog turd does little to change the fact it is still a turd. Keeping workers on site without at least a mask is incomprehensible! Your sampler that picked up “traces” of contamination was not in direct path of the current wind pattern. We know there was no plume that was released, so therefore what made it onto your sampler was extremely small of what settled on site, got blown around by traffic (as the road is still open) and then deposited on your awesome filter.
    Long story short, with 4.5 million at station A, there is no way to decon the exhaust and panels. Think what the area must look like in terms of numbers if there is that type of activity at stat. A……from the room to the exhaust around the corner, back half a mile and then straight up half a mile…..Riiiiiight…

    1. @Just a second

      I hope you plan to stick around long enough to become involved in discussion. We generally frown on “drive by comments” that start off offensively without anyone to provide clarifications.

      Are you a resident local to WIPP?

    2. @Just a second

      You wrote:

      If the ventilation worked and flowed as designed, there shouldnt of been hours of smoke pouring out of the salt shaft the day of the fire.

      Who said the ventilation system was supposed to prevent smoke from leaving the facility? If you worked underground and there was a fire, wouldn’t you appreciate a little fresh air? How quickly do you think that HEPA filters would become saturated if someone attempted to use them to clean smoke?

      In other words, I’m guessing that the ventilation system design does not call for the system to shift to filters or to recirculation mode in the case of a fire. Do you have different information about the system specifications?

    3. @Just a second

      Lastly, and I too speak from experience, how much plutonium-radioactive isotopes in your lungs is ok? NONE

      Are you trying to tell me that everyone who breathed air during the period from 1945-1963, when the atmospheric test ban treaty was signed, should have been harmed by internal exposure to plutonium? Do you think the material released during that extensive testing program, which resulted in the explosion of about 2,000 nuclear weapons, has somehow disappeared?

      Have you ever heard of the IPPU group of workers who accidentally inhaled substantial quantities of Pu during the bomb manufacturing process in the 1940s and 1950s, yet were still alive well and being monitored well into the late 1990s?

      Here is one of the earlier documents about the studies conducted on that group of people, but there were follow on studies as well.


      (Note: Link changed to better copy of same document.)

    4. And is there any possibility that the various (MANY) nuclear tests contaminated the soil in that area? Quite a few that the government has released the location of. And how many have they not released the location of? Trinity was above ground and near White Sands missile Site. There were others in NM.

    5. There is some additional logic about ‘how much’ Pu is (not)ok in the lung. The regulatory (10CFR20) airborne limits for 239/240Pu are 2e-12 and 2e-14 uCi/ml for worker and public respectfully. There is one alpha decay per decaying atom of Am or Pu; the energies are approximately 5.48 and 5.12MeV respectively. The Pu is considered to be in hard particles, most of which is caught in the upper human airways and expectorated, natural reactions to dusty environments, great design.

      Now consider radon progeny. These are really tiny because they come from radon gas as single atom decays. These are with us every live minute of our lives. As gas, the atoms are drawn into the deep lung, right on past the aforementioned barriers. So, (with a little hand waving) one should have a constant concentration comparable in ratio to ambient air. There are 6-8 rapid alpha decays in the radon progeny chain depending on how you count and the level of equilibrium. The worker and public airborne limits for radon are (with progeny) (220Rn) 9e-9 and 3e-11 uCi/ml and (222Rn) 3e-8 and 1e-10 uCi/ml respectively. That’s about a 1000 times higher than for Pu and with more potential decays! Most of the alpha decays are above 6 MeV with one at 9 MeV!

      As to why the difference in regs? Well, it’s kinda hard to control radon below natural. So, the limits were set somewhere near there. But for the man-made, we go overboard. I’ve never really gotten a satisfactory answer from health physics on this one, I’m just a nuclear chemist.

  7. The nuclear industry should produce a guideline for writing press releases about radiation emissions that include practical comparisons like the smoke detector, medical tests using radiation, average radiation in the human body, 5,000 bq.

    How many minutes of operation of the coal plant at Farmington NM would it take to equal this release?

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