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Where There’s Smoke

Are Utah fires spreading Cold War fallout all over again?


As Utah’s largest ever wildfire scorched western Utah in July, radiation monitors outside the town of Milford began sounding alarms.

Set up during the Cold War to alert residents to radiation escaping from bomb tests at the Nevada Test Site, the monitors showed readings seven times higher than normal during the fire, with some spikes of radioactivity higher than the instruments could record—at 40 times normal background radiation.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) says the readings were nothing to worry about, probably the result of monitors capturing naturally occurring radon escaping from area soil. Skeptical nuclear watchdogs, however, fear the fires now raging through Utah could be spreading radioactivity leftover from Cold War bomb tests.

NNSA’s explanation of the radiation readings is “an artful dodge,” says Steve Erickson, director of the Utah watchdog group Citizens Education Project. Erickson agrees the radiation threat from the Milford fire was likely minimal but says old fallout from the Nevada Test Site is a likely cause, and the government should be looking for it.

The idea that fires—all fires—are to some extent radioactive, is nothing new, notes Dane Finerfrock, director of the Utah Division of Radiation Control. For more than a decade, fire watchers have noticed elevated radiation readings, thought to be from natural radioactivity. The question is less whether there is radioactivity in fires, but whether it matters, says Kevin Rohrer, spokesman for the NNSA’s Nevada Site Office. The radiation levels at Milford, while elevated, were still well below readings that would cause concern, even for firefighters closest by, he says.

But nuclear watchdogs say radiation detection instruments used for the Community Environmental Monitoring Program (CEMP) don’t allow NNSA to make such blanket statements of safety. Current monitors check in real time for gamma radiation, but not two other potentially dangerous radiation types. And the monitors can’t immediately say what is causing elevated readings.

Downwinders Inc. and the Citizens Education Project are calling for a review of the monitoring program and an independent analysis of samples collected from Milford. The groups complain that determining the source of detected radiation takes too long to do any good in an emergency, since radiation filters must be sent to a lab for analysis. As City Weekly went to press, more than two weeks after the Milford monitor first measured elevated radiation, results of the Milford filter analysis had not been posted on the CEMP Website cemp.dri.edu.

In fact, in the case of the Milford fire, the detection equipment in use at the time will likely never determine the radiation source.

“We may not be able to say what it was,” says David Shafer, who oversees the CEMP monitoring program at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. “It’s a disappointment. It’s more likely we can say what it wasn’t.”

If natural radon was the cause, as government scientists theorize, it can’t be proven. The element doesn’t last very long and any evidence of it would have disappeared by the time the Milford filter reached the DRI lab.

So far, DRI’s scientists can say there was no evidence on the filter of cesium-137, a manmade radioactive isotope that is a telltale sign of Nevada Test Site fallout. DRI did find potassium, uranium and several other radioactive isotopes that are naturally occurring in the area.

Shafer says the institute is experimenting with advanced monitors he hopes to put into the field, including monitors that sniff for all radiation types and a monitor specifically for radon. Additionally, the institute hopes to perform controlled burn experiments to determine if radon is the cause of increased radiation readings associated with wildfire.

Radiation monitors, once spread throughout the country, were scaled back after the United States stopped bomb testing in the early-1990s. But DRI has added additional monitors to the network in recent years in areas of population growth in southern Utah and northern Arizona.

Downwinder activist Andrew Kishner thinks advanced monitors should be arrayed throughout the West, given emerging evidence that fires are spreading old nuclear fallout.

The idea that Cold War fallout can be suspended again in the air during fires and travel far and wide isn’t just speculation, he notes. Canadian researchers showed as much during controlled burns last year. Looking for evidence of secret modern-day nuclear testing, the Canadians instead discovered radioactivity from old Cold War fallout redistributed by forest fire.

The same thing was found during a large New Mexico wildfire in 2000.

Originally, scientists at New Mexico’s Environment Department thought their radiation monitors during the Cerro Grande fire were picking up leaks from modern-day tests at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). But analysis of ash after the fire showed man-made radiation released by the Nevada Test Site during open-air bomb tests in the ’50s and ’60s. Plutonium, cesium, strontium and other man-made nuclear products had been stored in plants for decades, then left behind on the ground after the burn. The levels found were high enough to trigger health and cleanup warnings. It took from two to four years before contaminated ash had fully washed off the burnt landscape.

As in the Milford fire, the New Mexico monitors initially registered only radiation from naturally occurring sources. It took looking at the ash to determine the scarier aftermath. Follow-up studies found smoke had carried old fallout radiation as far as Idaho, where it was deposited on the ground by rain.

“Immediately after the fire, most of the radiation was naturally occurring,” says Dave Englert, environmental surveillance manager at the department’s LANL oversight bureau. “That diminished in 12 to 24 hours. What remained were isotopes from the atmospheric (NTS bomb) testing.”

Englert says if New Mexico found Nevada Test Site material in ash, the ash from July’s Utah fires, closer to the test site, should be examined.

The Milford Flats fire has been brought under control, but as City Weekly went to press, eight other large fires raged in the state, including three on the Nevada border.