Science Notebook: Radiation Emergency Response – From the Field

About the author: Gregg Dempsey is an EPA Radiological Emergency Response Team commander and has been with EPA more than 21 years. His job involves being an internal consultant to EPA on radiation issues and being a field response person for radiation emergencies.

image of author pointing to flowchartIf you’ve ever worried about some of the strange new terms that have been in the media since September 11, 2001, like ‘dirty bomb’, ‘radiation dispersal device’ and ‘improvised nuclear device’, you’re not alone. I worry about them too. But my worry is probably a little different than yours; I am part of a group of people who might have to monitor and cleanup the radiation from these types of events.

EPA deals with small radiation problems across the country all the time. They range from transportation accidents to cleanup at abandoned facilities. We work well with our state and local counterparts, and other Federal agencies to get the job done and remove dangerous radiation from our environment.

The smaller problems turn out to be mostly local issues, but they provide valuable lessons for larger accidents and incidents. You learn just how complicated measuring radiation can be, and how complicated it is to determine when you must act and when you might not need to act. Everyone agrees that high levels of radiation exposure are dangerous. It’s the lower levels that spark a huge debate. The debate ranges from questions such as ‘is my health at risk?’, ‘do we leave it here or must we clean it up?’ or ‘are these low levels still a danger?’ Depending on who you talk to, the answers are quite different. In my job, I try to help answer these questions.

I am unfortunately fortunate; I’ve been to and worked at a vast number of radiation cleanup sites across the United States, and I’ve participated in so many emergency response exercises that I’ve lost count. I’ve also been up close and personal at the Chernobyl accident site in Ukraine several times, and I have seen the devastation of wide spread contamination in the environment and how that accident affected its citizens. I try to bring that experience back to EPA.

The Radiological Emergency Response Team (RERT), of which I am a member, is one of many specialized technical teams in EPA. I’m often asked to provide help and advice on radiation issues in the field. That is, how to prevent, measure, clean up and protect people from needless radiation exposure. We train a lot, we maintain a good response capability, and we help where we can.

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