Las Vegas Review-Journal
Saturday, September 13, 1997
Trace amounts of plutonium found in attics
By Keith Rogers
As a graduate student, Jim Cizdziel spent his days climbing around the attics of some 90 homes in Nevada and Utah, looking for fallout, the radioactive remnants of nuclear tests.
Not surprisingly, he found fallout in dust on top of rafters and in the soil around old houses in Las Vegas, Beatty, Goldfield and other communities around the Nevada Test Site and Nellis Air Force Range, where 100 above-ground nuclear tests were conducted from 1951 through 1963.
Fallout was still detectable this year in attics of homes in the Southern Utah towns of Enterprise, Toquerville, Ivins and St. George.
But dust from 15 older homes sampled in Las Vegas contained more plutonium than expected.
The discovery was a surprise because above-ground tests were supposed to have been detonated when Las Vegas was not downwind of the test site, a Rhode Island-size proving ground 65 milesnorthwest of the city. Cizdziel stressed that the trace amounts don't pose a health risk to people living in the homes.
"This is more of a scientific curiosity than a health concern."
Cizdziel presented his research this week to colleagues at the American Chemical Society's national meeting in Las Vegas.
Based on his research on the 45 homes he found suitable for sampling, Cizdziel theorizes that the excess plutonium, though still in trace amounts, probably stems from a series of experiments, known as safety tests, that were detonated at the surface but did not erupt into nuclear chain reactions. The tests were conducted to demonstrate that nuclear bombs involved in transportation accidents would not explode.
"But they did spread plutonium around in the desert," said the graduate chemist in the environmental science and health program at the University of Nevada, Reno. "Perhaps the dust can be resuspended and carried off the test site. We were kind of surprised."
Cizdziel's paper, "Attic Dust: A new study of radioactive fallout from the Nevada Test Site," caught Department of Energy officials off-guard.
David Wheeler, an Energy Department health physicist, said he doesn't think Cizdziel's claim about resuspended plutonium is supported by his presentation.
Wheeler said Energy Department scientists studied fallout issues in the 1980s, taking samples of soils and bricks of buildings.
"Even though we didn't do attics, this is consistent with what he observed," Wheeler said.
Agency spokesman Greg Cook said, "We don't see it as a rising public health risk."
Wheeler said Cizdziel's paper "caught me cold." "There's nothing that's inconsistent with what we found previously," he said, referring to the 1980s Offsite Radiation Exposure Review Project.
Wheeler said Cizdziel's theory on resuspension of plutonium particles in soil from the test site during high winds might have merit.
"On the test site in Yucca Flat the plutonium in the air is greater in quantity than the rest of the site," he said, referring to an area frequently used for above-ground tests.
Winds across the flat probably suspend some particles, he said.
As for plutonium in the soil at places where safety experiments were detonated, the Department of Energy has cleanup projects under way. One contaminated site is near the test site boundary on the Nellis range.
Cizdziel reported that homeowners were receptive to his requests to probe their attics. He said some believe family illnesses, particularly cancer, are
linked to exposure to fallout during the days of atmospheric testing.
"It was not difficult finding people willing to have their attics sampled," his report said. Some downwinders "received little or no warning and often had clothes hanging outside or windows wide open when the fallout arrived."
One Las Vegas couple who answered a Cizdziel flier said they were curious about fallout in their Eighth Street home, a one-story structure built in 1938.
"I kind of figured it was here," said Fred Nielsen, who lives there with his wife, Patricia. "I wondered how much of it was here and if it was unhealthy for us."
Patricia Nielsen said she's "not a bit (worried). Not now. I think this is something people want to know about."
The report, co-authored by Cizdziel's research adviser, Vernon Hodge, and Scott Faller of the Environmental Protection Agency in Las Vegas, discusses a governmental legal web strangling attempts by downwinders to win lawsuits seeking fallout damages.
Concerning one case, the report said, "The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, which in essence, affirms the government is immune from lawsuits challenging major public policy decisions."
Cizdziel spent a summer working with the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal project near the test site.
He wore a mask over his mouth and nose while collecting samples to avoid inhaling dust, contaminants or the rodent-related, deadly hantavirus. The fallout, he said, was among the least of his fears while crawlingover cobweb covered rafters.
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