Drilling for Radioactive Gas?

  • The Rulison device at insertion, 1969 (Photo courtesy of the US Department of Energy Digital Photo Archive)

There are proposals to drill for oil
and gas very close to the site of a
nuclear explosion. The device was
exploded underground in western Colorado
40 years ago this month. Natural gas
from wells near the site could be
distributed throughout the U.S. Some
experts are concerned the natural gas
could be radioactive. Conrad Wilson
reports regulators could allow drilling
closer to the blast site in the next
couple of years:

Transcript

There are proposals to drill for oil
and gas very close to the site of a
nuclear explosion. The device was
exploded underground in western Colorado
40 years ago this month. Natural gas
from wells near the site could be
distributed throughout the U.S. Some
experts are concerned the natural gas
could be radioactive. Conrad Wilson
reports regulators could allow drilling
closer to the blast site in the next
couple of years:

On September 10, 1969 the Atomic Energy Commission detonated a 40-kiloton
nuclear bomb a mile and a half under ground. It was called Project Rulison. The
bomb was three times the size of the one dropped on Hiroshima.

The idea was to find peaceful uses for nuclear weapons. The federal government
hoped that nukes could be used to free up pockets of gas trapped below.

(sound of video)

The nuke did free up gas.

The government tested the gas by flaring it – burning it in the open – over the next
year. They discovered the natural gas was radioactive.

Marian Wells is a long time resident of Rulison. Her parent’s home was close to
the detonation site and the gas flares. Both of her parents died of cancer. So did
many of her neighbors.

She spoke before the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

“My parents were given no notice that you were flaring contaminated gas. And
yet both my parents died of cancer. Cancer is prevalent in this area. And yes, no
one has studied those cause and effect. You don’t really care about us.”

There’s been no government studies connecting cancer and the Rulison blast,
but the community remains fearful and suspicious.

Gas drilling is allowed as close as three miles of the blast site. That natural gas
is piped around the country.

Now some companies say they want to drill for natural gas within a half mile of
ground zero.

The Department of Energy maintains that, for the most part, the gas near the
blast site is safe, but there’s some uncertainly.

Jack Craig heads up the Rulison site for the Department of Energy. Craig says
drilling closer to the nuclear blast site should move forward slowly.

“What we’re saying is do it in a sequential manor. So that you come in slowly
testing the wells as you go in for contaminants – specifically tritium – and, if you
don’t find anything, move in closer.”

Tritium is a radioactive substance produced by the blast. Breathing tritium can
cause cancer.

Chris Canfield works on environmental protection for the state oil and gas
commission. He heads up an annual audit on the Rulison site.

Canfield: “Simply put, everything that’s coming out of the ground is being
sampled, being analyzed.”

Wilson: “If someone were to come to you and say they want to drill within the
half mile of the Rulison blast site, would you say that’s safe?”

Canfield: “I wouldn’t really know at this time.”

Canfield says that the state would require a special hearing before it would
approve any drilling permits any closer.

Oil and gas commissioner Jim Martin says there are still too many unanswered
questions to allow drilling that close to the blast site.

“There are significant information gaps and that makes is very difficult to really
understand the risks either to the workers or to the public who live within some
distance of the drill site.”

Martin says he understands why people are skeptical. He says the United States
has made a lot of mistakes with radioactive materials. Navajo uranium miners
got cancer because of radio exposure. People downwind of above ground
detonations suffered. Martin says skepticism is warranted.

“So it’s not unreasonable to ask some pretty tough questions of the federal
government before we go further into that half mile perimeter and produce more
gas.”

Gas that could be burned to heat homes across the U.S.

For The Environment Report, I’m Conrad Wilson.

Related Links

New Study Calls for Nuke Protection Pills

A new government report recommends wide distribution of a protective pill to people who live near nuclear power plants. But many states with power plants don’t offer the pill. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

A new government report recommends wide distribution of a protective pill to people who live
near nuclear power plants. But many states with power plants don’t offer the pill. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


The National Academy of Sciences is recommending states make potassium iodide pills readily
available to people who live near nuclear power plants. If taken shortly before or after exposure
to radiation, potassium iodide pills can prevent thyroid cancer caused by exposure to radioactivity
that could be released in an accident or attack on a nuclear power plant.


But some states don’t plan to distribute potassium iodide pills. The states say it’s too complex to
stockpile, distribute and deal with proper dosages for the general public. The states also say
potassium iodide provides only partial protection and best and might give people a false sense of
security, tempting them to stick around to gather belongings when they should be evacuating as
quickly as possible in a nuclear emergency.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Debating the Need for Radiation Pills

  • Some states are arguing with the federal government's program to hand out radiation pills to those who live near power plants. The states say the pills don't protect from all exposures and give residents a false sense of security. Photo: Lester Graham

Since the September eleventh terrorist attacks, political pressure has been building to distribute potassium iodide pills to people who live around nuclear power plants. The pills help reduce the damage from exposure to certain kinds of radioactivity in the event of a release, but not all states with nuclear power plants are distributing the pills. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

Since the September eleventh terrorist attacks, political
pressure has been building to distribute potassium
iodide pills to people who live around nuclear power
plants. The pills help reduce the damage from
exposure to certain kinds of radioactivity in the event of
a release, but not all states with nuclear power plants
are distributing the pills. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


David Lochbaum is a former nuclear engineer who is now with the Union of Concerned
Scientists. He says everyone at risk should have some of the pills handy….


“We feel the federal government should step in and require potassium iodide to be stock-
piled for the residents within ten miles of all nuclear power plants, not just some people
in some states.”


Lochbaum and his colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists say if the potassium
iodide pill is taken at the proper time, it saturates the thyroid with a stable or benign form
of iodine. That way, if a radioactive cloud is released from a nuclear power plant,
harmful radioactive iodine breathed in is not retained by the thyroid.


“If you don’t take potassium iodide, your body tends to absorb the radioactive iodine. It
tends to assault your body for days or months and can lead to thyroid cancers and other
illnesses that are easily avoidable with this very cheap pill that can be taken.”


But some of the states with nuclear power plants say too much stock is being put into the
potassium iodide pill. Illinois has more nuclear power plants than any other state in the
nation. Thomas Ortciger is the head of the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety…


“It’s a bogus issue that I think has been blown way out of proportion because of 9-11.”


Ortciger says his state is not participating in the federal government’s potassium iodide
pill program. He says handing out the pill to everyone who lives near a nuclear power
plant can give the residents a false sense of security…


“It is not a cure all. It is not a total radiation pill. It defends one small part of the body —
quite frankly it there was an accident or there was an act of terrorism and there was a
release from a plant, there’s probably seven – eight other nuclides that could be just as
dangerous that the people would become contaminated with.”


That’s not stopping the federal government from encouraging the states to sign on to its
potassium iodide pill program. Sue Gagner is with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
She says the N.R.C. believes the potassium iodide pills are helpful…


“It is certainly true that potassium iodide does only provide protection from the one
radioactive nuclide, radioactive iodine. So, there are others that could be released in a
severe nuclear accident. That’s why we only refer to potassium iodide as a supplement to
evacuation and sheltering which could be needed.”


Gagner says citizens should be instructed that the potassium iodide pill does not mean it’s
safe to stick around a contaminated area to gather a few more belongings. People should
leave as soon as possible. But… in the states where the federal program has been used…
surveys a year after the potassium iodide pills were pre-distributed have found that as
many as 90-percent of the people can’t even locate the pills. Gagner told us the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission doesn’t implement the program… so, it leaves it up to the states
to decide whether or not it works… when we asked about the programs effectiveness…


“So, there’s no way to measure whether this is effective or a complete waste of money.”


“Well, I don’t think it’s a complete waste of money. No, I think it can be effective when
used along with the other methods of possible evacuation or sheltering and it can be
effective.”


But some state regulators are skeptical. In Illinois, the Department of Nuclear Safety
refuses to get involved with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s program… but it has
launched it’s own potassium iodide pill program. Director Thomas Ortciger says there’s
been too much political pressure to completely ignore the issue… so the pill is being
made available to people who live near a nuclear power plant and who ask for it…


“For people who feel that this will give them some comfort, we’re going to make this
available, but it’s certainly not going to be part of the Illinois plan.”


Ortciger says the terrorist threat since nine-eleven has only persuaded Illinois emergency
officials to concentrate on the one thing they’re certain will work in case of a radioactive
release… quick evacuation… and the potassium iodide pills are a distraction from that
goal.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Lester Graham.

DEBATING THE NEED FOR RADIATION PILLS (Short Version)

  • Some states are arguing with the federal government's program to hand out radiation pills to those who live near power plants. The states say the pills don't protect from all exposures and give residents a false sense of security. Photo: Lester Graham

A group of scientists concerned about the environment wants the federal government to force states with nuclear power plants to stock-pile pills that help prevent exposure to radioactivity. Some states don’t think the pill is helpful. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham has more:

Transcript

A group of scientists concerned about the environment wants the federal government to
force states with nuclear power plants to stock-pile pills that help prevent exposure to
radioactivity. Some states don’t think the pill is helpful. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lester Graham has more.


The Union of Concerned Scientists wants the potassium iodide pills distributed to
everyone who lives within ten miles of a nuclear power plant. David Lochbaum is with
the group. He says it’s protection in case there’s ever an accident or a terrorist attack on
the plant and radioactivity is released.


“Potassium iodide is taken to saturate your thyroid with a stable or benign form of iodine
so when radioactive iodine goes by and your body breathes it, it’s not retained by the
body. You just exhale it.”


But fewer than half of the states with nuclear power plants have signed up for the federal
program to make the potassium iodide pills available. One of the concerns is that people
will stay longer gathering belongings, thinking the pill protects them from radioactivity.
It actually only protects for one of several different harmful radionuclides. Some
emergency experts say the best bet is to simply evacuate people as quickly as possible.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Lester Graham.

Commentary – Floating Nukes

Russia has recently begun construction on a floating nuclear power
plant, designed to bring electricity to remote northern regions of that
country. Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Suzanne Elston
wonders
what could happen if we brought these floating plants to the Great
Lakes:

Transcript

Okay, so on the surface it sounds like a really bad idea. Build
floating nuclear power plants, with dependable Russian nuclear
technology, and dot them along the shore of the Arctic Ocean. Sort of
like a little fleet of mini-Chernobyls-to-go. Critics are saying that
these barges will be sitting ducks, waiting for terrorists to tow
them away. And then there’s that ever-present threat to the
environment.


But I say, let’s not be hasty here. I think there’s a potential for
using these barges in the Great Lakes. First of all, they could help
us get rid of our nuclear waste problem. What Russia plans to do
with the spent fuel is tow the barges into shore every dozen years
and unload it. But I say flip it around. Take all the waste from our
land-locked plants and stick it on the barge.


This would solve no end of problems. No more worrying about burying
it in a mountain somewhere. Problem solved at a fraction of the cost.
We actually could float the stuff in the water around the barge,
which would solve another major environmental problem. There’s been
so much concern about invading species in the Great Lakes. A good
dose of radiation should render even the hardiest invader sterile.
Another problem solved.


And that’s just the beginning. The glow from all this spent fuel
would light up the water around the reactor. This would make it a lot
easier for sports fishermen to see what they’re doing. After all,
nobody’s supposed to eat the fish they catch from the Great Lakes,
anyway. If we keep the barges nice and close to the shoreline, they’d
light up those dark and dangerous beaches. We’d save on energy and we
wouldn’t have to worry about lighting bonfires. That would put an end
to all those rowdy beach parties. The glow would also help boaters
find their docks at night. No more search and rescue. Another bonus.


The more I think about it, the more I have to admit, this is one hot
idea. You gotta hand it to those Russians. I wonder what they’ll
think of next.


Suzanne Elston is a syndicated columnist living in Courtice, Ontario. She comes to us by way of the

Great Lakes Radio Consortium.