Firefighters train to deal with radioactive material

Photo by Mitch Talley

Instructor Chris Alverson, right, looks on as firefighters use their instruments to check levels of radioactivity during a Whitfield County Fire Department training exercise.

Under a bright blue sky at the North Georgia Agricultural Fairgrounds on a late March afternoon during a training exercise, first responders donned protective suits and switched on radiation detection devices.

They moved quickly to take care of a "victim" in a three-vehicle crash that had left boxes of radiological waste scattered across the parking lot, putting out a "fire" and working to contain any potentially dangerous materials that may have been released from the packages.

The exercise was the culmination of three months of intensive training for the Whitfield County and Dalton fire departments on how to handle an incident involving vehicles carrying radiological waste.

The federal Department of Energy (DOE) and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency teamed up to present the training to more than 100 city and county firefighters on all shifts as part of WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) preparation.

Located in Carlsbad, New Mexico, WIPP is the nation's only repository for the underground disposal of nuclear waste known as transuranic, or TRU, waste consisting of clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris, soil and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements. Disposal of TRU waste is critical to the cleanup of Cold War nuclear production sites. Waste from DOE sites around the country is sent to WIPP for permanent disposal and often travels through Georgia from nuclear sites in Savannah and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. WIPP has been disposing of legacy TRU waste since 1999, cleaning up 22 generator sites nationwide.

TRU waste is long-lived and has to be isolated to protect public health and the environment. Deep geologic disposal in salt beds was chosen because the salt is free of flowing water, easily mined, impermeable and geologically stable. Salt rock also naturally seals fractures and closes openings.

Getting the radioactive waste to New Mexico requires transportation in special containers that have been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission after extensive testing that included being dropped 50 feet onto a steel platform and again on a steel spike, submerged in 50 feet of water, and set afire in a blaze of jet fuel for 30 minutes at more than 1,400 degrees.

"For this exercise, the Department of Energy and the state of Georgia allow us to bring sources out here so we can create a real live environment for our students," said Chris Alverson, instructor for the DOE's Transportation Emergency Preparedness Program and a contractor for Technical Resource Group, standing near a tractor-trailer carrying three of the large steel cylinders known as Type B containers.

"They are contained sources and of course we meet all the state and federal standards for shipping these sources," Alverson said. "But using the real thing gives a realism to the participants in the class. They're actually able to take their radiation meters and physically survey that energy. We certainly don't have any contamination so we have to make those readings up because everything is contained. But these are sources hot enough to give off energy and they can take real live readings but still be very safe because of our packaging."

While the idea of nuclear waste traveling along the state's roads might be a little unnerving to residents along the way, Alverson says they can be reassured that officials are taking all necessary precautions to keep them safe.

"I would tell the public that they should feel very confident in the packaging, the shipping requirements being met, and the response capabilities because of this program," he said. "The Department of Energy Transportation Emergency Preparedness Program is out there to help the local responder deal with this type of materials."

While there have been accidents where the steel containers came off the trailer, "we've never had an injury or death in the over 60 years of shipping DOE materials in Type B shipping containers as a result of a release of material," Alverson said.

"The disadvantage of these containers and probably the biggest threat is that they're heavy," he said. "When they're loaded, they can weigh as much as 19,000 pounds each, and so in an accident scenario, they may cause some damage on the side of the roadway if they roll off. But again, we've never had one actually breached, and these things are excellent for hauling the material safely -- the engineering behind the containers is incredible."

Alverson says the overriding idea behind shipping radioactive waste safely is to make the package containing it as strong as possible. "We put the emphasis on the proper package to contain the material," he says, "and of course the more dangerous the material, the stronger we engineer and build the packaging."

Local firefighters are more likely to see accidents involving what's known as Type A packaging, which contains less dangerous waste created by the health care and construction industries.

"Probably the two most common would be items used in construction, like soil density gauges or radioactive cameras that take pictures of welds and things like that," Alverson said, "and then even more common than that is radiopharmaceuticals, stuff used for treatment and diagnosis in people."

Fortunately, this type of waste has a very short half-life, so even though it's transported in a cardboard box that could rupture in a severe accident, "it is a non-life-threatening amount of material so it's not going to hurt the environment or the individual to any magnitude."

Still, it's better safe than sorry -- hence the training for local firefighters to keep the public as safe as possible in the event of a radiological accident.

"The Dalton Fire Department and Whitfield County Fire Department and Emergency Management folks have been very, very active in being prepared for this type incident for this area," Alverson says. "Dalton is on a primary shipping corridor, and this is probably the third time I've been here in the last 10 years doing this type training. We appreciate them being very progressive in the way they get ready to handle those situations if they were ever to happen."

By the way, Alverson says the local firefighters did an excellent job responding to the emergency exercise.

"In our exercise, two of the vehicles had radiological material being transported," he said. "One had Type B shipping containers with no damage and we weren't too concerned about that because of the construction of the containers. The other was Type A packaging, which is most likely radiopharmaceuticals. The fire department arrived, realized they had a victim and a fire involved. So they prioritized by taking care of the victim, putting out the fire, surveying the packages, and containing any material that may have been spilled or released from those cardboard boxes we call Type A packages."

Alverson said his team of observers looks to see if the responders have their priorities in order. "Do we save lives over measuring for radiation?" he said, "and they did that correctly. The other is fire. If we don't put fires out and those packages get involved, then they may actually be spreading the contaminant. Once they get those first two priorities complete, then they can slow the process down and start dealing with finding out where the material is, whether it's outside the package, and if so, how far, and then take measures to limit the spread of that contaminant and get ready to transition to a recovery process where we actually clean it up and restore the area."

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