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How much radioactivity did the WIPP release?

Robert Hayes Published: May 4, 2014

To accurately state that everything is radioactive does not justify exceeding discharges of concentrated radioactivity into the environment which violate regulatory limits.  That would be like saying it is ok for a house to burn down because it has a fireplace.  All radiological activities in commerce from nuclear well logging in the oilfield to high school chemistry sets have limits and controls for quantities, safe use and disposal of radioactive materials.  When a facility does not exceed their regulatory or safety limits, you might think they would just go along with business as usual.  If the facility had an unexpected release which still fell inside the safety and regulatory limits, you might still think they would again continue on as usual after fixing the problem.  When observing many notions from the recent WIPP radiation event, you might get the impression that somebody was measurably harmed or that the environment can now be expected to wane in some way.  Neither of these latter two are reasonable expectations from the events which have currently transpired based on modern science.  In  truth, the event may likely not even be able to be seen in the environment after the fact with the most sensitive technology available, it was that small.

Each hospital with a nuclear medicine department,  state or private university, and any other licensed radioactive material user across the country is allowed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to release into sanitary sewage up to 1 Curie of any type of radioactivity per year (under conditions specified in 10 CFR 20.2003).  If the radioactivity discharge comes through nuclear medicine patient excreta, then there are no limits whatsoever on how many Curies can be freely discharged into a sanitary sewerage system.

The reason this is of interest is that the recent WIPP release was less than a few millicuries, basically 1000 times smaller than the aforementioned yearly sanitary sewerage limit for each and every single university or hospital across the US which is regulated by the NRC.  This is not to say that the hospital release limits are not safe, please don’t hear that, rather the release from the WIPP really was small (although to them, any release was way too much).  Clearly the benefit from nuclear medicine applications are worth the environmental impact from the patient excreta release.

Given all this, it is interesting to note that the WIPP did not violate any regulatory based dose limits in their release but did certainly violate their goal to never have any kind of release whatsoever.  Although the safety systems were activated when called upon, the release albeit very small was still detectable and so announced to the public.  Similarly, the worker intakes were barely measurable but because they were measured, the information was in typical fashion released and made public.

Being able to detect small amounts of radiation does not indicate that those levels are dangerous, it only makes them detectable.  Federal agencies, state regulatory authorities and radiation safety experts understand the difference between insignificant levels of radiation exposure, medically justifiable levels of exposure and potentially unsafe levels of exposure and try to communicate this to the public (sometimes they fail).

The dose to workers at WIPP was low, so low that it was not even required by regulation to be measured.  That the WIPP chose to measure this anyway is really the result of going above and beyond those requirements.  The resultant measurement of a positive intake being released to the public was simply due to their policy of openness and complete transparency.

This is not in any way intended to be a defense of the WIPP as they clearly missed their target to have zero releases and zero intakes for the duration of their mission but this is rather an attempt to clarify the full story.  There is no question that things have changed for WIPP with this new paradigm with no longer having a stellar record for radiological control.  They have a large unknown with what occurred and what they will find underground but I am confident they will not hide what they find when it becomes known.  Tainted as their record has now become, the new way of doing business has yet to be worked out but I am confident they will continue to aim for excellence.