Desert Research Institute tracks remnants of tests – News – Downwinders can monitor radiation


Community Environmental Monitoring Program

Science teacher Don Curry, left, and Community Environmental Monitoring Program Manager Ted Hartwell discuss the network’s capabilities Oct. 17 at the Desert Research Institute’s station on East Flamingo Road.
Photo by John Gurzinski.

With the click of a mouse, residents in Las Vegas, Ely, Cedar City, Utah, or 26 other places downwind of the Nevada Test Site can instantly know if a wildfire is putting radioactive remnants of past nuclear weapons tests into the air they breathe.

The same could be said if a so-called “dirty” nuclear bomb exploded in the Las Vegas Valley. Or, if the Defense Department set off a massive, non-nuclear bomb on a ridge at the test site and winds blew its mushroom-shaped dust cloud beyond the fence line.

That’s the assurance the Desert Research Institute’s Web site gives to allay any fears that nothing radioactive from the test site has become airborne, primarily from those 928 atomic tests that were conducted there between 1951 and 1992.

In all, 1,021 nuclear devices were detonated in those tests, according to the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. In some cases, more than one device was involved. One hundred were set off in the atmosphere and 828 below ground, some in tunnels and some at or near the water table, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. 

Ted Hartwell, manager of the institute’s Community Environmental Monitoring Program, said the $1.85 million federally funded program that’s run by Nevada’s university research arm erases any doubt because of its around-the-clock detection and ability to report the data almost instantly.

Another assurance, he said, is that the public, primarily science teachers and other volunteers, collect the data and ensure its chain of custody.

“We want to make the data as publicly accessible and as transparent as possible,” he said on a mid-October afternoon, standing next to the weather vane and solar-powered monitoring gear at DRI’s East Flamingo Road campus.

“You certainly wouldn’t want DOE monitoring itself and reporting results to the public,” Hartwell said.

The program dates back to 1981 with the Environmental Protection Agency, and its online archives date back to 1999, about the time the Desert Research Institute took over.

The program was modeled after a monitoring system set up after the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident.

Hartwell said the network of 29 monitoring stations in cities, towns and rural areas surrounding the test site, from eastern California to west-central Utah, “certainly could assist with emergency response” if a terrorist struck Las Vegas or the surrounding area with a dirty bomb.

Any time a station detects airborne radioactivity that’s twice the average in a 10-minute period, then an e-mail message is sent to him and other scientists.

Data from some remote stations is received every two or three hours via satellite link.

Science teachers like Don Curry from Silverado High School receive a stipend of $143 a month to collect filter samples, change air filters, log data and sign off that it is valid. Counting him, there are 46 community environmental monitors.

“We can check the data in the classroom,” Curry said.

“I had two students who worked in Reno last year and came back all pumped up about the technology they were exposed to,” he said.

In anticipation of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s planned bunker-buster conventional bomb test last year, Hartwell said DRI, through its monitoring program, stood ready to “do some independent monitoring to confirm there was no off-site emission as a result of Divine Strake” at the Nevada Test Site.

Amid protests and legal action from downwinders, environmentalists and politicians, the defense agency put the test on hold indefinitely.

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