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Hidden danger: Radioactive dust is found in communities around nuclear weapons sites via Los Angeles Times

At the dawn of the nuclear age, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration placed the nation’s major nuclear weapons production and research facilities in large, isolated reservations to shield them from foreign spies — and to protect the American public from the still unknown risks of radioactivity.

By the late 1980s, near the end of the Cold War, federal lands in South Carolina, Tennessee, New Mexico, Colorado, Ohio and Washington, among other places, were so badly polluted with radionuclides that the land was deemed permanently unsuitable for human habitation.

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Studies by a Massachusetts scientist say that invisible radioactive particles of plutonium, thorium and uranium are showing up in household dust, automotive air cleaners and along hiking trails outside the factories and laboratories that for half a century contributed to the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons.

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Marco Kaltofen, a nuclear forensics expert and a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said he collected samples from communities outside three lab sites across the nation and found a wide variation of particle sizes. He said they could deliver lifelong doses that exceed allowable federal standards if inhaled.

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A peer-reviewed study by Kaltofen was published in its final form in May in Environmental Engineering Science. Kaltofen, who also is the principal investigator at the nuclear and chemical forensics consulting firm Boston Chemical Data Corp., released a second study in recent weeks.

The Energy Department has long insisted that small particles like those collected by Kaltofen deliver minute doses of radioactivity, well below typical public exposures. One of the nation’s leading experts on radioactivity doses, Bruce Napier, who works in the Energy Department’s lab system, said the doses cited by Kaltofen would not pose a threat to public health.

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Jay Coghlan, executive director of NuclearWatch New Mexico, cited a long history of denial about the claims of “down winders,” the residents of Western states who were exposed to radioactive fallout from atmospheric weapons testing. “We can not trust self-reporting by the Department of Energy,” he said. “I don’t accept that low levels of radioactivity have no risk.”

Tom Carpenter, executive director of another watchdog group, the Hanford Challenge in central Washington, said as recently as last year that the Energy Department released an unknown quantity of radioactive particles during demolition of a shuttered weapons factory, the Plutonium Finishing Plant.

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The canyon was used during the Manhattan Project and for years later to dump nitric acid wastes from plutonium processing, sending toxic and radioactive effluent down the steep ravine. The Energy Department conducted a cleanup in 2001, aiming to reduce radioactivity levels to the standard of “as low as reasonably achievable.” The lab takes the position that the cleanup lowered doses to recreational users well below federal guidelines.

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Radiation is a known cause of cancer. Much of what is known about the health effects of radioactivity derives from U.S. studies of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings during World War II.

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A worker’s exposure to radioactivity, such as walking by a radioactive substance or having particles cling to clothing, is checked by monitors and badges worn by workers at plant sites. Such exposure is like a medical X-ray, which delivers a momentary dose. But inhaling a small particle of plutonium or thorium can go unnoticed by such monitors and deliver a lifetime of alpha radiation right next to lung tissue, Kaltofen said.

“You can walk through a portal monitor without setting it off but you can get a substantial amount of energy from particles in the body,” he said.

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