Other Radiological Incidents
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We benefit from using radioactive materials for medical diagnosis and treatment, electric power generation, industrial processes, and research. However, these uses do have some risks. Careful planning and design can minimize risks from accidents but not completely prevent them. Below are some accidents that have occurred in spite of the reforms following the Three Mile Island incident.
On this page:
- Brush fires at DOE Hanford Reservation
- Los Alamos Fire
- Tokaimura, Japan
- Contamination at Royal Green Scrap Metal Recycling Facility
- Tritium Leak at Brookhaven National Laboratory
- Atmospheric Nuclear Tests, People’s Republic of China, 1976
Brush Fires at DOE Hanford Reservation, Washington
In July 2000, major brush fires erupted and covered approximately 200,000 acres of the Department of Energy's Handford Reservation in Eastern Washington State. At the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, EPA dispatched its Radiological Emergency Response Team and equipment to independently analyze and verify any radiological impact on the environmental by the fires.
EPA laboratories performed detailed radio-chemical analyses of 63 samples obtained during monitoring immediately after the fires. Air samples were taken from a total of 24 locations around the facility. The sampled areas included populated areas immediately adjacent to the Hanford Reservation and up to 80 miles away, and tribal lands. Most results were within normal background range based on national averages. A small number were slightly above background levels but were within or below EPA's protective risk range for human health and the environment.
Los Alamos Fire, May 8, 2000
After a prescribed forest burn at the Bandolier National Monument in New Mexico went out of control, high winds caused fire to spread into the town of Los Alamos. The fire also spread into the surrounding communities and onto the Department of Energy's (DOE) Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The laboratory is situated between canyons, which have historical radiological contamination and cleanup projects underway.
RERT staff were requested by the EPA On-Scene Coordinators, DOE and the State of New Mexico to support their efforts at the fire by conducting air sampling and analysis. The RERT deployed an environmental monitoring network comprised of 20 low-volume air samplers to the surrounding communities and in other areas of concern, as well as a mobile laboratory and support vehicles. RERT staff took the lead in maintaining the air sampling network and analyzing samples, which showed no evidence of a health danger due to radiological concerns from the fire.
Tokaimura, Japan, September 30, 1999
Three workers at the Japan Nuclear Fuel Conversion Company transferred several times the allowable limit of enriched uranium into a precipitation tank, bypassing criticality controls. The transfer caused an uncontrolled, self-sustained nuclear reaction. Though the accident released radioactive noble gases and gaseous radioiodine, most of these substances were confined to the building.
EPA fully activated the nationwide RadNet system, monitoring radioactivity in air and pasteurized milk. No increase in radioactivity above typical background levels was measured in any of the samples analyzed, so protective actions were not needed.
Contamination at Royal Green Scrap Metal Recycling Facility, Pennsylvania
In September 1997, undetected radioactive americium entered the Royal Green facility for recycling. The processing at the plant stripped away the source's shielding. The load was shipped out for reprocessing but refused when radiation was detected. The load was sent back to Royal Green.
Pennsylvania requested emergency assistance and an interagency team, led by EPA, and including the NRC and DOE, responded. The team recovered the main part of the radioactive capsule,and shipped it to a DOE facility for proper handling. The rest of the material had been mixed in a large quantity of shredded aluminum scrap and was safely contained.
- Radioactive Source Reduction and Management
Learn more about what EPA is doing to protect the nation's metal supply.
Tritium Leak at Brookhaven National Laboratory, New York
In 1997, a major, ongoing tritium leak was discovered at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a Department of Energy 2,265-acre scientific research center located in Suffolk County, NY. The leak probably originated from the 68,000-gallon spent fuel pool within a reactor building. It had been leaking for an estimated 10-12 years. Following the initial discovery of the tritium contamination, other plumes including a cobalt-60 plume and an additional tritium plume were located.
Beginning in January, 1997, staff from EPA's Region 2 office worked with the Department of Energy. In February, DOE committed to conduct a major cleanup effort and to meet the environmental and health standards of EPA's Safe Drinking Water Act.
Atmospheric Nuclear Tests, People’s Republic of China, 1976
The People’s Republic of China conducted two test detonations of nuclear weapons on September 26 and November 17, 1976. Both detonations were conducted above ground, injecting radioactive material into the atmosphere.
EPA fully activated ERAMS, now RadNet, to monitor radioactivity in air, precipitation, and pasteurized milk until concentrations returned to background in November 1976. EPA’s monitoring system identified low but measurable quantities of radioactive material throughout the United States from the September 26 test and no additional material from the November 17 test. As a result of the findings, state agencies in Connecticut and Massachusetts ordered farmers to switch dairy herds to stored feed only, minimizing impact the potential impact on milk supplies. EPA continued to monitor radioactivity levels until they returned to normal background levels.