By JOHN R. EMSHWILLER and GARY FIELDS
A national radiation-monitoring system enhanced after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks isn’t working as intended, with nearly three-quarters of stations not checking for a type of radiation in real time, including ones in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Environmental Protection Agency officials confirmed 99 of 135 beta-radiation sensors in its RadNet system—which monitors in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico—aren’t working and have been turned off. Officials blame electromagnetic interference from sources such as cellphone towers and said efforts to resolve the problem have been unsuccessful.
EPA officials said the beta-detection problem cropped up in 2006 when they started putting the real-time monitors into the field.
The agency can compensate for the lack of real-time beta data, officials said, by relying on each RadNet station’s gamma-radiation monitor, which hasn’t been affected by the interference. Almost all radionuclides that emit beta particles also emit gamma radiation, they said. Both types of radiation can cause cancer.
Some nuclear experts said that in an emergency, knowing as much as possible about whether beta or gamma emitters are present, and in which amounts, can be crucial for making decisions such as how large an area might need protective measures. In instances where only a beta emitter is present, the lack of a working monitor could leave officials unaware of potentially dangerous levels of contamination, they added.
The beta-monitoring issue could fuel critics who contend the EPA has been pulling back on its radiation-protection mission—an assertion the agency strongly disputes.