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EPA laboratory on Gunter serves nationwide interests

  • Published
  • By Jon Sladek
  • Air University Public Affairs
The National Air and Radiation Environmental Laboratory at Maxwell's Gunter Annex is only one of two Environmental Protection Agency laboratories in the United States that specialize in monitoring exposure to radiation with radioactive material analysis.

The laboratories at Gunter Annex and Las Vegas are managed by the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Radiation and Indoor Air.

The Gunter Annex laboratory performs several functions, with the environmental radiation monitoring system among the most significant, said Ronald Fraass, NAREL director.

Also known as RadNet, the system places monitor units in strategic locations throughout the United States to cover each geographical region, individual states and major population centers. These units use air pumps and filters to record radioactive material in the air at the given location. The unit filters are checked by an operator twice a week, and the filters and results are mailed to the laboratory.

Data from the RadNet monitors constitute the primary source of radiation data in the country. Monitors were used after history's two major nuclear power plant accidents -- Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 -- to reassure the public nuclear fallout was not a health threat.

"We don't have to wait for an event and say, 'Oh goodness, we need to get some monitors out there,'" said Scott Telofski, a nuclear engineer in charge of helping decide monitor unit location. "They are already out there and working right now."

Currently, the EPA is working to replace existing monitor units with a new, more sophisticated model. Once the new models are deployed, the on-site operator will still collect the filter twice a week, but immediate data will be available electronically. The new units will return data in "near real-time."

"We are hoping to get as many as 180 units out," Mr. Fraass said. "We have the first 51 on order."

Another primary function of the NAREL is emergency response. Equipped with a state-of-the-art mobile unit inside a 40-foot tractor-trailer, the Radiological Emergency Response Team will respond from Gunter to any radiological emergency in the country.

"We are not first responders," said Lynn Evans, who works on the team. "We can take the mobile facility to an incident and analyze air, water and soil samples on site."

The work done on such sites plays an integral role into the decision making of local and federal governments in the event of a disaster such as a nuclear power plant accident or a terrorist act such as a "dirty bomb." According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a dirty bomb, or radiological dispersal device, combines a conventional explosive, such as dynamite, with radioactive material.

The final major function of the laboratory is elaborate radiochemical and hazardous chemical analysis. In addition to air, the NAREL tests drinking water, pasteurized milk and rain samples from all over the country.

"If a sample of water comes in, we might do three separate analyses on it," Mr. Fraass said. "In addition to radioactive materials, we can look for dangerous materials or solvents that may be in a water sample or metals that might be in soil or water."

The EPA will perform analysis for numerous agencies throughout the federal government and the Department of Defense, as well as the private sector. The laboratory recently completed an analysis for the Navy. Mr. Fraass said they also conduct tests for foreign countries at the request of the State Department.

Chances are, most individuals do not think about radiation and its effects on a daily basis, but the NAREL is constantly working to make sure it stays that way.