Downwinders concerned about Milford Flat Fire radiation
By RYANN RASMUSSEN
CEDAR CITY – When it comes to data from the National Nuclear Security Administration concerning increased radiation levels in Southern Utah – presumably because of the massive Milford Flat Fire – Andrew Kishner isn’t easily swayed.
As a citizen concerned about harmful radiation levels, Kishner, who co-organized an anti-weapons test rally in Kanab, claims the NNSA hasn’t been forthcoming with its information.
For one, he said the radioactive material registering on the equipment near the area of the largest recorded fire in Utah history might not be naturally occurring, low-concentration radon gas like the NNSA originally suggested. It might, however, be nuclear fallout material left over from tests decades ago, which, because of the fire, has been re-released into the atmosphere.
Also, Kishner said, the actual gamma radiation levels during the days when the fire was out of control may have been much higher than 140 microRem per hour, which was the maximum reading, according to the NNSA.
“And the scary thing is we don’t know how high these spikes go because the data isn’t available,” he said.
Because the Community Environmental Monitoring Program site in Milford averages all the gamma radiation levels it records in a 10-minute interval, Kishner said 140 microRem per hour was an average and not the actual maximum reading.
According to a graph on the CEMP Web site, microRems per hour, at times, reached 870. But because the graph only goes to 870 microRem per hour, Kishner said it could have been a lot higher.
Ultimately, Kishner said if what’s being emitted is more than natural radioactive radon, he worries about the firefighters who battled the record-breaking blaze day in and day out. He’s also concerned about the local Downwinders and their families.
“I have a deep empathy for what suffering Downwinders have gone through,” he said.
Richard Miller, who calls himself an environmental expert in fallout and has written books on the subject, said in an e-mail that it’s unknown exactly what has been released by the fire because the CEMP sites only detect gamma radiation, not alpha or beta particles.
Some of the fallout particles at the nuclear testing sites, he said, are alpha emitters. That means the CEMP detectors will not recognize dangerous and carcinogenic radioisotopes like americium-241 and plutonium.
“Now, alpha particles do approximately 20 times the damage to a cell as an equivalent gamma ray,” Miller wrote.
On Friday, Kevin Rohrer, a spokesman for the NNSA, told The Spectrum & Daily News that if what officials are finding is natural radon, then folks shouldn’t be worried because the concentration is so low and the phenomenon is a natural occurrence.
However, Miller said radon itself is much more threatening in reality because the radioisotope radon-222 emits seven moderate-energy gamma rays for every 10,000 alpha particles.
“So if the CEMP sites are reporting radon based on gamma ray output, then they are indeed, A, making wild guesses, and, B, likely underestimating the true hazard by at least a factor of 20,” he continues in the e-mail.
Miller said the biggest problem facing radioactive monitoring sites is inadequate equipment. To truly understand the radioactive particles in the environment, he said, alpha and beta particles also must be detected.
Rohrer acknowledges that although unlikely, the fire could have reactivated dormant radioactive fallout material from nuclear testing. But, even if that is the cause of the increased radiation levels, there wasn’t much that could be done to prevent it in the first place.
“Simply the fire burning in the area, while it is possible, it’s not probable that large amounts of cesium would be lifted up,” he said.
Cesium, he said, is a particle that would indicate fallout material. So far, however, Rohrer said tests haven’t revealed cesium, but officials are still studying the findings, and the results will soon be available to the public.
The numbers on the CEMP Web site that report higher gamma microRem per hour readings are also accurate, Rohrer said, but those figures are averaged to reflect a more practical rate of exposure.
As for Utah’s largest wildfire on record, Kathy Jo Pollock, a public information officer for the Eastern Great Basin management team, said as of Monday afternoon the fire was 95 percent contained and acreage burned was still 363,052.
Pollock said crews already have started to leave or accept other assignments. Officials are still concerned about the unburned islands within the fire’s boundaries, but a few remaining firefighters are keeping watch.
“If anything flares up, they’ll go ahead and suppress those interior islands if they do flare up,” Pollock said.
Monday’s lightning storms caused at least one start-up blaze near the Milford Flat fire lines, but the incident management crews quickly made their way to the scene. More information should be available at a later time.
Pollock said the fire is expected to be fully contained by the end of today