National Radon Action Month: Test to see whether your home is safe

January 5, 2012

Press release from EPA today:

January 4, 2012

EPA Recognizes National Radon Action Month: Test for Radon Gas to Protect Health

21,000 Americans die from radon related lung cancer each year

WASHINGTON
– The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is encouraging Americans this January, as part of National Radon Action Month, to take simple and affordable steps to test their homes for harmful levels of radon gas. Radon, a colorless odorless gas, is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Radon can seep into a home from underground and if left to accumulate, high levels of radon can cause lung cancer. Improving indoor air quality by increasing awareness of environmental health risks, such as radon gas, supports healthier homes and communities.

“Testing for radon is an easy and important step in protecting the health of your family,” said Gina McCarthy, EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation. “Radon can be found in every single state. Nationally, elevated radon levels are in as many as one in 15 homes – a statistic that is even higher in some communities.”

Approximately 21,000 people die from radon related lung cancer each year in the United States, yet elevated levels of this health hazard can be prevented through these simple steps:

  • Test: EPA and the U.S. Surgeon General recommend that all homes, both with and without basements, be tested for radon. Affordable Do-It-Yourself radon test kits are available at home improvement and hardware stores and online or a qualified radon tester can be hired.
  • Fix: EPA recommends taking action to fix radon levels above 4 Picocuries per Liter (pCi/L). Addressing high radon levels often costs the same as other minor home repairs.
  • Save a Life: By testing and fixing for elevated levels of radon in your home, you can help prevent lung cancer while creating a healthier home and community.

Radon is a natural, radioactive gas that comes from the breakdown of uranium in soil, rock and water. It can enter homes through cracks in the foundation or other openings such as holes or pipes. In addition to testing for radon, there now are safer and healthier radon-resistant construction techniques that home buyers can discuss with builders to prevent this health hazard.

In 2011, EPA announced the Federal Radon Action Plan, along with General Services Administration and the Departments of Agriculture; Defense; Energy; Health and Human Services; Housing and Urban Development; Interior; and Veterans Affairs. This action plan will demonstrate the importance of radon risk reduction, address finance and incentive issues to drive testing and mitigation, and build demand for services from industry professionals.

More information on how to Test, Fix, Save a Life, obtain a text kit, or contact your state radon office: http://www.epa.gov/radon or call 1-800-SOS-RADON

More information on the Federal Radon Action Plan: http://www.epa.gov/radon/action_plan.html

R001


Nuclear power plant incident in Nebraska?

June 19, 2011

A Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, should not be confused with the U.S. magazine of the same name, as I originally did.

Late Friday The Nation questioned an alleged news blackout around an incident at the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant outside of Omaha, Nebraska:

A shocking report prepared by Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency (FAAE) on information provided to them by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) states that the Obama regime has ordered a “total and complete” news blackout relating to any information regarding the near catastrophic meltdown of the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant located in Nebraska.

According to this report, the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant suffered a “catastrophic loss of cooling” to one of its idle spent fuel rod pools on 7 June after this plant was deluged with water caused by the historic flooding of the Missouri River which resulted in a fire causing the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) to issue a “no-fly ban” over the area.

Located about 20 minutes outside downtown Omaha, the largest city in Nebraska, the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Plant is owned by Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) who on their website denies their plant is at a “Level 4” emergency by stating: “This terminology is not accurate, and is not how emergencies at nuclear power plants are classified.”

So, we have some questions to deal with:

  1. Is there a serious incident at the Fort Calhoun facility?
  2. Has anyone ordered a news blackout, and if so, why?
  3. Is it likely that a Pakistani newspaper relying on Russian sources can better report on a nuclear power plant in Nebraska than, say, the local Omaha newspaper?

As much as we might like to give The Nation a chance at being accurate, how likely is it that a U.S. president could order a complete revocation of emergency safety plans for a nuclear facility, when, by law and regulation, those plans are designed to protect the public?  The story smells bad from the start, just on government processes in the U.S.

The Nation, Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, nuclear power plant

This is the photograph used by The Nation to illustrate its online article claiming a meltdown at the Fort Calhoun nuclear power station in Nebraska. It shows a flooded nuclear power station, Fort Calhoun we might assume. Is it? Does the photograph show any problem besides the flooding?

The Russian report is too strong, probably.  First, there’s no news blackout, as evidenced by local reporting.  Second, our American “be-too-conservative-by-a-factor-of-ten” safety standards make piffles sound like major problems.  The story’s being filtered through a Pakistani newspaper should give us further pause in taking things at face value.

According to the local Nebraska newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald, the Fort Calhoun facility powered down on April 9 for refueling.  Because of the pending floods, it was not yet refired up.  A powered-down reactor is unlikely to melt down.

O W-H, Nebraska’s largest and most venerated newspaper, reports on a second problem at a second nuclear plant.  Reports on the second “incident” give a clear view into just how careful U.S. plants are usually operated:

Cooper Nuclear Station near Brownville, Neb., declared a “Notification of Unusual Event” about 4 a.m. Sunday when the Missouri River there reached a height of 42.5 feet.

The declaration, which has been anticipated by the power plant’s operators, was made as part of safety and emergency preparedness plan the station follows when flooding conditions are in effect.

The plan’s procedures dictate when the Missouri River’s water level reaches 42.5 feet, or greater than 899 feet above sea level, a notification of unusual event is declared. If the river’s level increases to 45.5 feet or 902 feet above sea level, plant operators are instructed take the station offline as a safety measure.

An earlier story at the O W-H dealt specifically with issues at Fort Calhoun, and the flooding — again suggesting there is little danger from that facility.

FORT CALHOUN, Neb. — Despite the stunning sight of the Fort Calhoun nuclear reactor surrounded by water and the weeks of flooding that lie ahead, the plant is in a safe cold shutdown and can remain so indefinitely, the reactor’s owners and federal regulators say.

“We think they’ve taken adequate steps to protect the plant and to assure continued safety,” Victor Dricks, spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Thursday.

Tim Burke, vice president at Omaha Public Power District, said the plant’s flood barriers are being built to a level that will protect against rain and the release of record amounts of water from upstream dams on the Missouri River.

“We don’t see any concerns around the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station,” Burke said at a briefing in Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle’s office.

The nuclear plant, 20 miles north of Omaha, was shut down April 9 for refueling. It has not been restarted because of the imminent flooding.

Who do we believe, a Russian report issued more than 6,000 miles from Nebraska, reported in a newspaper in Pakistan, or the local reporters on the beat?

Fort Calhoun nuclear generating plant, flooded by the Missouri River, on June 17, 2011 - Photo by Matt Miller, Omaha  World-Herald

Photo caption from the Omaha World-Herald: "The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station from the air Thursday. OPPD was putting the finishing touches on federally ordered flood-defense improvements before flooding began. MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD"

More, other resources:

UPDATE, June 20, 2011:  Let’s call it a hoax

I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to call the claims of a serious accident, emergency and potential disaster at the Fort Calhoun site, a hoax.  The Russian report — if it exists — may not have been intended as a hoax, but coupled with filtering through the credulous and gullible foreign press (we’re looking at you, Pakistan’s The Nation), it has risen to hoax level, to be debunked.  Sure, you should be concerned about safety and security at Fort Calhoun and Cooper — but you should be concerned about safety and security at every nuclear power plant around the world, all the time.  This may be a good time for you to reread John McPhee’s brilliant Curve of Binding Energy.  It’s dated — Ted Taylor died October 28, 2004  (was his autobiography ever published?) — but still accurate and informative, plus, any excuse to read any work of McPhee is a great one.


Radiation dose comparison charts from XKCD

March 20, 2011

No, there’s no humor in this thing — just good, solid information.

XKCD put together a chart that shows in geometric terms how various radiation doses work. With a tip of the pen to Bob Parks, the chart notes that cell phones don’t count here because cell phones don’t put out ionizing radiation, the type that causes cancer, but just radio waves.

The chart won’t be easy to read here — click on the image and go to the XKCD site for a bigger, more readable image:

Radiation Dose Chart from XKCD

Radiation Dose Chart from XKCD

It’s a good, clear graphic in its full size.  Go see.


What’s the radiation level right now?

March 19, 2011

Concerned about radiation from Japan?

It’s highly improbable that dangerous levels of radiation would drift more than a few miles from the damaged nuclear power plants in Japan, but maybe seeing some actual readings might convince people there’s not much to worry about — other than our sympathy for Japan, the Japanese people and especially those workers who have stayed on the site of the power plant to work to secure the reactors so they do not become hazards to the population at large.  Those workers may be exposed to significant, harmful radiation, and they deserve all the thanks you can give them.

Below is a map of the contiguous 48 states of the U.S., showing live readings from about a dozen sampling sites across the nation.  The map should update about every minute (if it doesn’t, and  you want to see updates, click through to the Radiation Network site).

Normal background levels are about 25 to 75; a low-level warning might be given if readings are sustained at 100.  These numbers are Counts Per Minute (CPM), a very crude measure from a Geiger counter showing how many radioactive particles or rays hit the sensor in a minute.  It does not distinguish alpha, beta or gamma, and it may be dependent on the design of the Geiger counter, especially the size of the sensor — differently designed machines give different readings even right next to each other.

So it’s a crude count, but it’s a map of counts.

Radiation Network map of radiation in the U.S.  Read legend, use with caution

Radiation Network map of radiation in the U.S. Read legend, use with caution. Click map to go to Radiation Network site.

Here is legend information for the map:

Legend for Radiation Network map

Sampling station symbols, Radiation Network

Nuclear site, calculated by the Radiation Network

At left is a symbol used on the map to mark “nuclear sites” by the Radiation Network.  Note that a nuclear “site” is not necessarily a nuclear power station.  For example, there are nuclear sites designated near Moab, Utah; there are a couple of ore refining facilities or tailing ponds there, but no nuclear power station.  The map shows a nuclear site in the Texas Panhandle.  There is no nuclear power station there.

Instructions on how to read the map, from RadNet:

How to Read the Map:

Referring to the Map Legend at the bottom left corner of the map, locate Monitoring Stations around the country that are contributing radiation data to this map as you read this, and watch the numbers on those monitoring stations update as frequently as every minute (your browser will automatically refresh).  The numbers represent radiation Counts per Minute, abbreviated CPM, and under normal conditions, quantify the level of background radiation, i.e. environmental radiation from outer space as well as from the earth’s crust and air.  Depending on your location within the US, your elevation or altitude, and your model of Geiger counter, this background radiation level might average anywhere from 5 to 60 CPM, and while background radiation levels are random, it would be unusual for those levels to exceed 100 CPM.  Thus, the “Alert Level” for the National Radiation Map is 100 CPM, so if you see any Monitoring Stations with CPM value above 100, further indicated by an Alert symbol over those stations, it probably means that some radioactive source above and beyond background radiation is responsible.

Notice the Time and Date Stamp at the bottom center of the Map.  That is Arizona Time, from where we service the Network, and your indication of how recently the Radiation Levels have been updated to the Map.

(Please note: Any White circles on the map represent Monitoring Stations that are running Simulations, instead of using a real Geiger counter, so any Alert levels that may occur over those stations are to be ignored since they represent only momentary testing.)

Remember, “alert level” is sustained count above 100. But again, be alert that this is only counts per minute, and may be difficult to translate to an accurate radiation reading.

The Radiation Network is an all volunteer operation, no government funding or other involvement.  In fact, the network is seeking volunteers to get a Geiger counter and hook it up to the internet to provide even more real-time readings.  See “How to Participate in the Nationwide Radiation Network.”

If you’re a denier of global warming/climate change, you should use your usual denial tool, claiming that because radiation at background levels is “normal,” no level of radiation can be harmful.  In fact, if you’d make that claim and volunteer to go staff the crews trying to cool the reactors, the entire world would salute you.

Should you be concerned? MIT’s Technology Review explains that the levels of radiation at the plant site itself are quite low, though higher than normal (article by Courtney Humphries).  The article also explains that radiation levels rapidly drop the farther from the plant one is; while we may be able to detect increases in radiation attributable to the radiation from Fukushima site, it is highly unlikely that radiation will exceed safety standards:

In terms of potential health dangers from radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, “the people who are in the most immediate danger from acute and severe radiation doses are those people who are on site at the moment and who are desperately trying to keep the reactors under control,” says Jacqueline Williams, a radiation oncologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Moving away from the immediate vicinity of the plant, radiation levels drop very rapidly. James Thrall, radiologist-in-chief at Massachusetts General Hospital, says that radiation levels are inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source: The level at two miles from the source are one-quarter what they are at one mile, and “at 10 miles away, it’s almost an infinitesimal fraction,” he says. Individual exposure also varies widely depending on whether a person is outside or indoors, or shielded with protective clothing. Japanese authorities have evacuated the population living within a 20-kilometer radius of the plant, and have warned those living within 30 kilometers to stay indoors. Some experts say that people living beyond this range have no cause for concern at this time. “This has nothing to do with the general population,” McBride says.

The trickier question is whether lower doses of radiation—well below the threshold of acute illness—could lead to long-term health consequences for those in that area. Thrall says that epidemiological studies on survivors of nuclear attacks on Japan have found that those receiving 50 millisieverts or more had a slightly elevated cancer risk—about 5 percent higher than expected—and that risk seemed to rise with higher exposures. But scientists still vigorously debate whether that risk can be extrapolated down to even lower exposures.

After the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the population experienced a surge in thyroid cancers in children. However, scientists found that the culprit was not radiation in the air but radioactive contamination of the ground, which eventually found its way into cow’s milk. Thrall points out that in Japan, this is highly unlikely because the authorities are carefully monitoring the water and food supplies and keeping the public informed, which did not happen at Chernobyl.

More, resources:


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,194 other followers

%d bloggers like this: