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Nuclear lab fire raises more questions

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While the wildfires at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) have long been put out, the debate over how the government handled the blaze is still simmering. A month after the Department of Energy announced that the 49,000-acre Tea Kettle fire had been contained, the agency released its analysis of air sampling conducted during and after the fire, reassuring that “no man-made, alpha-emitting radionuclides” had been detected from the nuclear complex. But, as watchdog groups point out, those numbers only tell part of the story.

Both INEEL and independent monitoring by the State of Idaho picked up increased levels of radiation—in some places by as much as 870 percent. But officials say these results are nothing to be concerned about.

“What we do is monitor for gross alpha and gamma radiation, and if those numbers are up, it indicates a need to analyze for specific radionuclides, to see if it’s due to natural radiation or attributable to activities at INEEL,” says Department of Energy spokesperson Brad Bugger. And since those numbers were high, Bugger says, the agency tested for man-made radioactive materials—the sort likely to be most dangerous to humans—and found none.

The State of Idaho, doing its own series of tests, did detect small levels of cesium-137 at the Big Lost River Rest Area on Idaho State Highway 2026. Cesium-137 is a cancer-causing material that comes from nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons. But officials concluded that the amount was also too low to cause any health problems.

“Basically what happened is the fire burnt through and took all the vegetation off and left the barren soil behind,” says Idaho government scientist Doug Walker. “So with all the wind out there we had a lot of dirt moving around.”

Walker says the concentration of cesium in the air is comparable to levels in the dirt practically anywhere on the planet, due to historic nuclear testing. However, the INEEL fires blazed through a stretch of ground that was contaminated with cesium in 1992, leading activists to question whether that earlier accident contributed to this fire season’s air problems. In addition, members of the Jackson, Wyo.-based Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free (KYNF) and Idaho’s Environmental Defense Institute, point out that the agency hasn’t released all its data.

“They collected those samples from the edges of the smoke plume,” says Erik Ringelberg of KYNF. “As the fire moved closer, at least at one sample area, the numbers went up. That sends up a red flag to me. We want to know what actually happened at the front of the fire.”

Bugger confirms that crews worked side-by-side with firefighters, monitoring the air quality with hand-held monitors, but did not provide the results of that testing to the Independent by press time.

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