ST. GEORGE – A private for-profit website that posts radiation readings and alerts reported spikes in background radiation readings for St. George this week, while radiation authorities in Utah and Nevada found no notable increases or cause for alarm in the region.
The alert from the Nuclear Emergency Tracking Center website
A website, Nuclear Emergency Tracking Center, sells equipment, software and subscriptions for data and alerts, among other things.
On Wednesday, NETC posted alerts that showed counts-per-minute radiation levels in St. George reaching a record high of 456 CPM. The average count is 222 CPM and does not normally deviate more than 55 CPM, according to the NETC alert.
“Basically our system is an early warning radiation system, we detect whenever the radiation is increasing at any given station,” Harlan Yother, founder of the website said.
NETC does not have any private monitoring sites set up in Utah.
“We have only been in business for about a year now and the closest private monitoring sites we have are in Boise, Idaho, and Rio Rancho, New Mexico,” Yother said.
NETC gathered the data for St. George directly from the Environmental Protection Agency RadNet site, Yother said. He has about four to five years of data obtained via a computer link through a system he developed, he said. The EPA data is available to the public, he said, but you have to have a way to access it electronically.
“I went back and printed out the chart for the last year and I don’t know what’s going on in St. George, but in the last month or two you have a big rise in radiation,” Yother said. “Of course our system detected it and that’s why the alert was sent out.”
NETC noticed spikes in readings beginning around Nov. 27, Yother said, with readings in Seattle going up on Dec. 6, and then moving across the U.S.
“We don’t have any proof of this,” Yother said, “but that was about the same exact time that they were moving the fuel rods out in Fukushima, Japan.”
Who monitors radiation levels in Utah?
There are two major monitoring systems for measuring background radiation in the St. George area: The Desert Research Institute and the Environmental Protection Agency’s RadNet.
The Desert Research Institute is an arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education, with its main campuses in Reno and Las Vegas. It conducts research on air, life, land and water quality throughout the U.S. and on every continent and is funded by and works in partnership with the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration’s Nevada site office.
The institute manages a program called the Community Environmental Monitoring Program that maintains 29 radiology and weather monitoring stations across communities downwind of the Nevada Test Site, including St. George, Cedar City and Milford.
In addition to the DRI, the EPA monitors radiation levels through its RadNet system. RadNet is a nationwide system with more than 100 fixed monitoring stations in 48 states and 40 portable monitors which can be moved to any location in the U.S. The EPA now has a monitoring station in St. George as well as Salt Lake City.
The monitors collect data on the nation’s air, drinking water, milk and precipitation in order to track radiation in the environment. Their systems operate 24/7 in real time and will detect higher than normal radiation levels. According to the EPA’s website, if there is a significant increase in levels, the EPA’s National Air and Radiation Laboratory staff will immediately investigate the cause.
What radiation monitoring officials and experts say
“Radiation is grossly exaggerated as to hazard,” Myung Jo, radiation safety officer for the DRI in Utah and Nevada, said.
Jo, serves as the radiation safety officer giving oversight to the DRI pursuant to a radioactive material license held by the University of Nevada at Reno. He said that on Dec. 13 background radiation readings for St. George and Cedar City were in the normal range.
Jo, who holds a master’s degree in radiological science and protection, warned about sensationalizing reports about radiation.
“It’s sad to see so many resources spent for something called protection when there is no hazard that exists,” Jo said. Sensationalizing this type of situation is not good for society, he said, because it promotes fear of the unknown with no justification.
As for other factors, the Fukushima incident did not cause a detectable increase in background radiation in the U.S., Jo said. “I would not expect that there would be an increase in readings due to the snow storm in St. George either,” he said.
The Division of Radiation Control for Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality relies on Desert Research Institute’s continuous monitoring from St. George, Cedar City and Milford. Its director, Rusty Lundberg, said that he had not seen any increases in Utah recently or during the Fukushima incident that would raise concern.
The EPA RadNet system involves collection sites, where filters have to be collected and sent to a lab in Alabama, Lundberg said, and it takes time for samples to be analyzed by the lab before results can be posted on the EPA site. By contrast, the NETC website posted its numbers in real time as recently as Dec. 13. By Dec. 15, the alert had been removed from the site.
Further, the Division of Radiation Control looked at information from the Desert Research Institute for December 9-12 and did not see any anomalies. DRC Program Manager Craig Jones said that on December 10 there are missing entries in the data from the DRI site in St. George but that system calibration was scheduled for that time frame.
The DRI’s Myung Jo also said that monthly calibration work was being performed in St. George on December 10 and it would be normal to have a higher reading when calibrating the equipment since that is done using a small radiation “button source” the size of a quarter.
“We didn’t notice anything in St. George,” Program Manager for the Community Environmental Monitoring Program Ted Hartwell said. There may be a small bump when there is precipitation, however its rare to see a 100 percent increase in readings, Hartwell said.
“I am at a loss to explain or acknowledge that there is a problem, Jones said. He said NETC is a group that I am not aware of. Jones said he does not believe that the heavy snowfall in St. George would have had a significant effect on the readings either.
The business of the NETC website
NETC is a limited liability company that was formed by Yother on June 11, 2013, according to Arkansas Secretary of State records.
In addition, NETC sells packages to customers which include a Geiger counter, computer equipment and software, for about $250 each. NETC also charges customers $20 per month to subscribe to its service as “chart” members, which offers access to NETC’s compilation of radiation data and email alerts.
Yother estimates that NETC has about 50 subscribers, all but six located in the U.S., who purchased the equipment and software. There are about 50 additional subscribers who utilize their own equipment and they are able to use the NETC software free of charge, he said.
None of Yother’s formal education was in radiation related sciences. He has an associate degree in computer data systems, he said, from Northern Virginia Community College.
“Now I am retired, I finally turned 65 and I will be able to collect my Social Security,” Yother said.
His goal is to get as many sites out there as possible pointing to about 3,000 monitoring sites in Japan. “If it wasn’t for Japan, no one would be interested in radiation,” he said.
“We don’t try to make a fortune or make a million dollars,” he said. The NETC site in question “was set up to provide warning to people,” he said, “we want people to support us.”
“I am retired and enjoy computer systems,” Yother said, “I got bit by the radiation bug.”
Ed. note: Clarification made at the request of Myung Jo and DRI. Jo is with the University of Nevada, Reno, where he is radioactive safety director and by extension serves as such for the DRI. He is not the director of of DRI.
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