Thursday, July 9, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Nuclear safety advocates are sounding the alarm about the risks of a plan by the Environmental Protection Agency to dismantle a mobile radiation detection laboratory stationed in Las Vegas and move it to Alabama, which could happen as early as Friday. Losing the lab, they say, could leave Nevada more vulnerable to a nuclear accident or act of terrorism, a claim that the EPA denies.
The mobile environmental radiation laboratory is a pair of trailers that carry state-of-the-art detection technology that can be rapidly deployed and are currently stationed at the EPA’s offices at UNLV.
If the laboratory were to be relocated to Alabama, the Western United States would be vulnerable in an emergency, said Dan Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear policy advocacy organization. "If radiation were released, this week we would be protected,” he said. “Next week and forever after, we’d be naked.”
The decision by the EPA to move the lab to Montgomery, Ala., announced in a March memo, has prompted state and federal officials from California and Nevada to press the agency for more information.
Nevada Rep. Dina Titus raised concerns with the EPA in April, asking the agency to justify moving the laboratory out of Las Vegas. She added that she found it "troubling" that her office was not notified.
In a May letter to the EPA, Jennifer Chappelle, manager of the Radiation Preparedness Unit of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, said that moving the lab out of Las Vegas "will increase response time to our state, jeopardizing our combined ability to adequately protect the public."
The EPA has defended its decision as a way to improve efficiency and reduce costs by combining Las Vegas' mobile laboratory with a similar unit stationed in Alabama. Neither of the labs has been dispatched to a radiological event in over 15 years, but they have been used for training exercises and for monitoring at Superfund cleanup sites in Texas and Louisiana.
Moving Las Vegas' lab to Alabama will allow the agency to "better support the mobile lab's analytic function by drawing directly upon the the strong and specialized analytic staff found at our fixed laboratory," Alan Perrin, the agency's deputy director for the radiation protection division, wrote in a letter to California officials last week.
While safety advocates worry moving the lab to Alabama could mean it would take days instead of hours to respond to a radiological release in the Western United States, the EPA said the facility isn't meant to be a first responder. "The (mobile laboratory) is not designed to analyze samples that are very radioactive ... hence, the mobile laboratory does not provide information that is valuable for making protective action decisions in the first few days of a response," Perrin said in his letter to California.
As the date of the move draws closer, the issue has drawn questions from U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and Gov. Brian Sandoval.
"Our staff has been in contact with the EPA and we have asked that the agency provide assurances that Nevada and the West have the ability and equipment to respond to a radiological incident and ensure the health and safety of Nevadans is protected," Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said.
An official from Sandoval's office confirmed the state has also contacted the EPA. But barring a reversal from the agency, dismantling of Las Vegas' lab could start as early as Friday, with the move taking place next week, said Hirsch.
To Hirsch and other nuclear safety advocates, the decision to move the lab out of Las Vegas is the latest setback toward improving radiation protection across the country. "It's called the Environmental Protection Agency but the protection is real slim," said Judy Treichel, executive director of Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, a group that opposes the use of Yucca Mountain as nuclear waste repository. “We have a real need for a mobile lab that does radiation detection here. Certainly more so than in the Southeast."