Citizen Monitors Keep A Wary Eye On Radiation And Government

Jeff McMahon – Forbes Blog via Intel Hub April 20, 2011

Retired high-school science teacher Don Curry visits a radiation monitoring station on Flamingo Road in Las Vegas a few times a week, records data and collects air filters that may contain radioactive isotopes trapped on the wind.

He does this, in part, so citizens don’t have to take the government’s word on radiation exposure.

“You know the history of this?” Curry asked me Monday as we stood at his station outside the Atomic Testing Museum. “We don’t trust the government. That’s what’s going on.”

Curry, 72, almost volunteers (he earns $150 per month) for the Desert Research Institute’s Community Environmental Monitoring Program, one of several sources of radiation monitoring information in the U.S.

Unlike the monitoring at EPA, which is conducted by government scientists; at UC Berkeley, which is conducted by academic scientists; or at Radiationnetwork.com, which is conducted by private geiger counter owners, CEMP pairs citizens and scientists. The aim is to increase community confidence, to preempt doubt.

The program is rooted in mistrust of government, Curry explained to me, because it’s modeled on a community-based program that emerged at Three Mile Island after the accident there in 1979. And it serves an area in Nevada and Utah that was exposed to fallout from about 100 above-ground nuclear weapons tests.

Curry and other monitors collect data from 29 stations that encircle the Nevada National Security Site—as the Proving Grounds is now known—and extend into Utah where “downwinders” contend the government deceived them about the risks of radioactive fallout.

Scientists from the Desert Research Institute, the non-profit environmental research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education, analyze the filters and data and publish the results online. You can check the most recent data from any station, including weather data, here.

The Department of Energy funds the program ($1.6 million per year), but Curry can vouch for the numerical data because he collects it himself.

“The actual written stuff that goes in, I write that down. Those are numbers I record,” he said. “Across Utah and Nevada, that’s well accepted.”

It’s meaningful for data to be well accepted downwind of the Proving Grounds.

“The government doesn’t care if you’re going to have a few extra cases of cancer,” Curry said. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘We’re going to take that hill—we’re going to have 50 percent casualties, but get your butt up that hill.’”

(For more on whether the government cares about a few extra cases of cancer, see “Why Does FDA Tolerate More Radiation Than EPA?”)

But Curry doesn’t consider himself anti-government or anti-nuclear. He considers himself a science teacher. He’s a winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Education, handed to him in 1998 by the president he calls “Billy J.”

“If people ask me whether the above-ground tests caused more cancer in Utah, I swear to you man, I don’t know how to answer that,” he said. “I try to look at it with an open mind every time I hear somebody talking about it. And I try to be objective about it.”

He first volunteered for CEMP in 1991, shortly before Billy J. ended nuclear weapons testing. He wanted to show his students that the government was not only settting off bombs in Nevada, it was also supporting an effort to monitor the dangers—and that they could participate.

“I stayed with this program really from a selfish viewpoint—I felt that it was really valuable to kids.”

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