It’s just a little release … of plutonium! (The public gets WIPPed again)



Per Petersen spoke at the last SCE meeting.  Here’s a response to his comment in the NewsOK paper May 16, 2014:

There are several problems with your kudos.  Firstly, smoke detectors save lives.  Plutonium leaks do not.  However, disposal of smoke detectors, like that of tritium signs, is problematic at best (especially when the disposal method is a house fire).  Tufts University, for example, bans tritium signs because of the “very large amounts of tritium” they contain.  (Perhaps they (and other institutions) ban Americium-241 smoke detectors, too, I don’t know.  There are alternatives.) At their web site, the NRC claims that tritium signs: “are designed to be inherently safe so they can be used without the need for radiation training” although a few paragraphs later, they admit that: “Tritium EXIT signs must NOT be disposed of as normal trash” and, in fact, require special licensed handling after all, when being disposed of “properly.”  1300 smoke detector’s Americium (half-life ~432 years) will be a hazard for about 4,000 years in the environment if it gets out through carelessness, fires, etc..  WIPP’s “little” release of plutonium will be a hazard for about half a million years (10 to 20X its half-life of 24,400 years).  There is no “safe” dose, although the individual dose to anyone will, as duly noted, be very, very low.  And so will their dose from thousands of other nuclear mistakes that didn’t need to happen.



Original article:


ome perspective on the 1.3 mCi release from the WIPP

Robert Hayes • Modified: May 16, 2014 at 8:30 am •  Published: May 16, 2014

The WIPP radioactivity release scared a lot of people.  This occurred in spite of state and federal officials publicly reassuring people they were safe and that there was no danger to them or their children from the release.  The actual amount of radioactivity released from the WIPP site was less than 2 mCi.  This number may seem meaningless to most readers who are not familiar with any form of radiation science.  As a comparison, a typical nuclear medicine procedure such as a stress test or a thyroid treatment will require anywhere from around 2 to 20 mCi of radioactivity to be injected intravenously into the patient.  Although the radioactivity in nuclear medicine is generated in the core of a nuclear reactor, any physician involved with radiology and radiobiology will correctly tell you that the dose you receive from these medical exposures are sufficiently small to be more than justified by the utility of the procedure.  Typical doses from nuclear medicine applications range from around 100 mrem up to 1,000 mrem.

When a fixed amount of radioactivity is ingested, it tends to give a smaller dose than when the same amount is inhaled which also tends to give a smaller dose than when it is injected.  A radioactive intake of the same amount of radioactivity will give a larger dose for radionuclides having certain properties.  These properties include longer half lives, higher energies and alpha radiation.

That the WIPP release gave insignificant doses to the environment and the public is certainly not a justification for the event.  The actual truth is that when it comes to medical and work related exposures, these are chosen by the individual receiving them and they are informed of the risks prior to the event.  When someone is aware of the risks prior to carrying out a task or being exposed to a situation, they are generally not as fearful.  This is likely because an informed person understands how to protect themselves if there is a need.  When it comes to radioactivity, a good rule of thumb is to compare any exposure to background radiation.  Life is designed to exist in radiation fields and to even be radioactive itself.  Too much radiation like too much lead, heat, pressure, vibration etc can be dangerous and even deadly but not at levels routinely experienced in the environment.

Examples are the dose you get from natural potassium in your body which is required to be healthy giving doses of 7 to 24 mrem per year because potassium is naturally radioactive giving off high energy gamma and beta radiation.  We also receive a continual exposure from cosmic radiation by not living underground which gives a yearly dose of around 26 mrem at sea level or 35 mrem at an altitude of 3000 ft.  The biggest natural dose comes from not breathing continually filtered air which gives you around 220 mrem per year.  If you lived in the rocky mountains, all that granite in the rock has small inclusions with concentrations of radium generating higher levels of radon so any breath of fresh mountain air brings into your lungs radioactivity having all the same properties of that in the WIPP release at approximately the same level.  This being heavy metals with alpha, beta and gamma radiation.  In other words, the nearest neighbors to the WIPP site(which are ranches)  received a larger dose just from breathing regular air that one day during the release than the entire lifetime dose they will have received from the activity given off by the WIPP release.  According to the WIPP website (, the nearest rancher would have received 0.02 mrem of a lifetime exposure from the WIPP release.

Some people say that, “accidents happen”.  Every safety expert I have ever met believes that all accidents are preventable.  The cause(s) along with any and all contributing factors are under investigation and being actively sought out to insure a repeat event does not occur. I don’t expect to ever meet anyone who would argue that because the release was so small that it was therefore ok.  I rather believe we are fortunate that the release was as small as it was.

The key element to note again is the dose.  When dose is reported in units of rem or mrem (where 1 rem =1000 mrem), then all the risk effects are factored in to give an equal effect at the same dose.  This is true irrespective of the radiation type or location where the exposure occurred.  In other words,  1 rem has the same risk from any source of radiation no matter how it was acquired.

The short story is that although the release was not justified, it resulted in doses to onsite workers which were orders of magnitude below legal limits and substantially below any measurable harm to the public or environment.  Clearly there was a problem at the facility but there is no reason for anyone to fear or worry about the radioactivity which was released.

As with any industrial or natural incident, the public health authorities should be relied upon to keep the public safe and informed should any event at the WIPP or any other facility occur.  Note that this would not be some fly by night website (and there are some very unreliable websites out there intending to scare people).  Examples of reliable sources of information include the State of New Mexico Environment Department, US Environmental Protection Agency, US Department of Energy, and your local city/county emergency operations center to name a few state and federal  organizations.


James Conca · Senior Scientist at RJ Lee Group, Inc.

Excellent perspective, Rob. We will correct the factors that caused this and resume operations. This waste still has to get in the ground and WIPP is still the best place to put it geologically and physiographically.
  • Martin Kral ·  Top Commenter

    Put this into perspective: WIPP isn’t even responsible for the radioactive leak and now they and Carlsbad are being punished for it. The source of the problem originated at the Los Alamos National Labs when they change the formula of an absorbing material they put inside the barrel with the waste material. That is not a WIPP procedure. Now the DOE wants to remove 90 jobs in Carlsbad by transferring record keeping to another National Lab at Oat Ridge. What does record keeping at WIPP have to do with unsafe change procedures at LANL? Stupid, that is all I got to say about this.
  • Per Peterson · UC Berkeley

    Another way to place this 1.3 millicurie release into perspective is to note that a typical smoke detector contains a microcurie, or 0.001 millicuries of americium. So the total release involved a quantity of radioactivity equivalent to what one would find in 1300 smoke detectors.

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