Nov 302003
Authors: Karthika Muthukumaraswamy

In the 1970s, scientific research involved creative thinking and

an adept pair of hands.

Today, science requires high-performance computing, gene chips,

nanomolecules, biosensors and nuclear magnetic resonance.

Neurotoxins, carcinogens, radioactivity and dozens of hazardous

materials line shelves in research laboratories.

Researchers are exposed to X-rays and other ionizing radiations

on a day-to-day basis.

“There is all kinds of different wastes – high-level wastes

versus very low-level wastes,” said Jim Abraham, a radiation safety

officer at CSU. “(It depends) on the energy and type of particles


In this era of nuclear race, biowarfare and chemical terrorism,

safety in science is important.

It is being underscored in scientific institutes, universities

and industries.

“With the advent of science, we are going to have

radioactivity,” Abraham said. “Of all the countries I know, the

U.S. has the most strict regulations.”

Abraham said high-level wastes that come out of nuclear reactors

are usually under very high security.

“High-level wastes are kept in very tight containers,” Abraham

said. “(In fact), they mix the liquid wastes with silicate to

solidify and make glass out of it.”

He said the wastes that come out of CSU labs are relatively

low-level wastes. Nonetheless, elaborate security measures need to

be taken.

“I think that CSU is very proactive in protecting its

biowastes,” Abraham said. “We can’t do anything out of the scope of

what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission comes under the branch of the

federal government and inspections are carried out every two


The university has its own radiation safety committee and

reports to the state of Colorado.

“The university has a radiation safety committee that does

unannounced inspections,” Abraham said.

National laboratories that deal with higher-level wastes have

higher security regulations.

Ward Whicker, a professor at the Department of Environmental and

Radiological Health Sciences, is involved in a project for risk

assessment at the Los Alamos National Laboratories in Los Alamos,


While LANL has its own monitoring station to assess risks, the

New Mexico Environment Department has insisted on an independent

assessment by an outside institute.

“The security there is very high,” Whicker said. “You have to

have special badges to get on the site.”

Whicker is currently on a contract with LANL, in collaboration

with a Risk Assessment Corporation based out of South Carolina.

“One of LANL’s goals is to reduce the risks. Our job is to

provide an objective assessment of the risks and publish it in a

way that will be understood by the public,” Whicker said. “Not only

will we provide risk assessment, but also a method for making

decisions in the future as to how the land will be managed in the


The risk assessment project involves analysis of published data

and extensive studies on site.

“There are about 12 people that work for (RAC). They have

different backgrounds, ranging from hydrology to atmospheric

sciences and chemical toxicology,” Whicker said.

The study involves assessment of risk to people who live away

from the labs and the analysis of contamination to air and water

close to the site. Workers in the labs are monitored.

Whicker said communicating the risks involved to the public is

one of the main challenges in this kind of study.

“We are doing a study on the best way for stakeholders to

involve in a study like this,” Whicker said. “What is the best way

to communicate with them? How can we communicate the technical

aspects? These are challenges.”

For large laboratories such as LANL, the containment of wastes

becomes that much harder.

“It is a very complicated study because the lab has a lot of

different facilities. They release hundreds of things to the

environment,” Whicker said. “(Also) there are several different

streams close to LANL. There’s outdoor recreation, like hiking, in

the canyons close by.”

Moreover, the stakes are higher at a place with such high-level


“Los Alamos is certainly a place where they do weapons research.

There is highly classified information. If a terrorist were to blow

up such a site, there would be huge problems,” Whicker said.

High regulations may be painstaking, but graduate students Yeon

Lee and Jes Kuruvilla said they are not too worried about


“I feel pretty safe,” said Lee, a student in the Department of

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “We have a protected area;

outside of that there is no radiation.”

Jes Kuruvilla, another biochemistry graduate student,


“Personally, I am not scared of radiation,” Kuruvilla said. “It

is not a big deal. We were shown that rocks from the mountains have

higher radiations (compared to what we deal with).”

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