The Saga of the Bureau of Radiation Protection
By M.A. Reilly
November 1994

CAUTION: Some dates could be in error. Contents are by no means comprehensive. The author's primary interest is in environmental radiation and emergency planning. Later revisions will expand on radiation control, materials licensing, radon and low-level rad waste.

Early in the author's career, she was told that if one hangs around a state radiation control agency for any length of time, one has the opportunity of seeing "everything", I really don't remember who the sage was that conveyed that observation, but he certainly knew what he was talking about.

The culture and mentality of an organization is based to some extent on its past experiences. To provide new staff with a notion of where BRP has come from, of what has happened here, we are presenting this brief history of the last 50 or so years of radiation protection in Pennsylvania state government. It also will provide a chance to observe the changing areas of interest and emphasis which are always going on in any organization.

The Saga, Epic, Interesting Times....

Commonwealth interest in radiation protection began to emerge in the late 1930's in the area of industrial hygiene. In 1937 the Bureau of Industrial Hygiene in the Pennsylvania Department of Health was interested in the radiation exposure of radium dial painters. Radium was extensively used from the 1920s through the late 1950s in the manufacture of self-luminous dials for clocks, watches, aircraft instruments, and other devices which needed to be read in the dark.

It was the custom of dial painters to point the paint brush with their lips. This resulted in their ingesting small quantities of the radium paint. (It doesn't take much, since a gram of Ra-226 is a Curie). By the late 1930s, it was becoming clear that the radium in the bones of the dial painters was inducing bone cancer in these workers.

In 1937, the Bureau of Industrial Hygiene in the Pennsylvania Department of Health purchased a geiger counter from a Canadian firm for the purpose of estimating the radium bone burden in radium dial painters. The bone burden is related to radiation dose to these individuals, The technique used was to place the tube (detector) of the geiger counter in the arm pit of the worker, thereby surrounding the detector with the bone of the ribs and the humerus (upper arm bone). The count rate is proportional to the bone burden which is proportional to bone dose. This technique was probably an ancestor of modern whole-body counting,

The point, here, is that radiation protection in Pennsylvania, as well as in most state governments, began in the area of occupational exposure and health.

In the 1950s interest continued in the occupational exposure from medical and dental x-ray and radium used in the healing arts. The first radiation protection regulations were promulgated in 1958 as Article 433 of the state health code. An interesting feature of these regulations was attention paid to exposures other than occupational. They prohibited, for example, the use of shoe fitting fluoroscopes. Around that time, the Radiological Health Section was established in the Bureau of Occupational Health in the Department of Health. The first section chief was Eugene Barry.

The Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Beaver County, PA achieved criticality on December 2, 1957. This date was the 15th anniversary of the first controlled criticality under Stagg Field at the University of Chicago at the start of the Manhattan Project (Admiral Rickover had a great flair for history). The event represented the beginning of commercial nuclear power in the United States. The reactor was owned by the Division of Naval Reactors in the Department of Defense, and the turbines were owned by Duquesne Light Co, The facility was operated by Duquesne Light Co. The "button" to start up Shippingport was pushed by President Eisenhower in Washington.

In 1960, a core melt accident occurred at the Westinghouse Waltz Mill test reactor in Westmoreland County. From what information remains of the event, the only interest the state had in the event was the disposition of two million gallons of contaminated water generated during the accident. At least a portion of the water was retained on site in lagoons, a condition which eventually lead to detectable Sr-90 in ground water plus contaminated soil. The site is currently undergoing cleanup.

In 1961, Tom Gerusky succeeded Eugene Barry as the section chief. In the early 1960s interest was growing about the health consequences of fallout from nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. The fallout concern lead to the infusion of federal money into state health agencies to establish environmental radiation laboratories and for radiological training of state health agency staff. PA's first gamma spectroscopy unit was purchased in 1962. The "Rad Lab" was a part of the Occupational Health Lab.

A significant feature of 1961 was the Lansdown project, conducted by the US DHEW. This project sought to decontaminate a house on Stratford Avenue in Lansdown, PA. It had been the site of radium source manufacture by a physician. The house was remediated to a dose to occupants of about 500 millirem per year, not counting radon. The cost of the cleanup was around $120,000 in 1962 dollars. This project was to be revisited.

Our first regional office was established in Philadelphia in 1964. This office later moved to Reading, then to Wernersville, then to Norristown, then to Conshohocken.

The construction permit for Three Mile Island Unit 1 was submitted to the USAEC in 1966, and Unit 2 in 1969. Unit 2 had originally been planned for siting in New Jersey.

Early 1966 marked the signing of the Atomic Energy Development and Radiation Control Act (P.L. 1625) by Governor Scranton at Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station (Unit 1). The Act was a child of its times. It mimicked, to some extent, the federal Atomic Energy Act, by combining the regulation of ionizing radiation with the pursuit of the development of this new technology for the benefit of Pennsylvania.

A salient feature of the act enabled the state to enter into an "Agreement" with the (then) Atomic Energy Commission for the regulation of certain radioactive materials. The driving force in becoming an "Agreement" state was the expectation of a general improvement in delivery of radiation protection regulation and interface with the licensees, plus an identifiable stick for maintaining staff quality in the rad program. (As of late 1994, Pennsylvania is still not an "Agreement" State).

A significant radiation protection event occurred in late 1967 with the Gulf accident, The event involved the accidental exposure of three workers at an accelerator at the Gulf Research Laboratory in Harmerville, Allegheny County. The underlying cause was an interlock which didn't. One worker received a mid-line whole body dose of over 500 rad, extremity doses of 6600 rad to the feet and legs, and 8800 rad to the hands and forearms. He survived largely due to a bone marrow transplant donated by his identical twin brother. He eventually lost his extremities. The second worker received over 300 rad mid-line whole body dose. The third got about 125 rad. All three were protected from infection through the use of reverse isolation during their recovery. The net effect of the accident was significant change in the regulation of accelerators nationwide.

Around this time, Pennsylvania began to acquire the title of the "Flagship of State Rad Programs".

The Pittsburgh regional office was established in 1968.

An interesting caper in the 1967-69 time frame was Project Ketch. This venture by Columbia Gas and US Atomic Energy Commission proposed the detonation of nuclear devices for the formation of underground caverns for the storage of natural gas. The project was part of Project Gasbuggy in the Plowshares Program (peaceful uses of atomic energy). The facility was to be sited near Renovo in Clinton County. Due in large part to public uproar, the project was eventually canceled.

Just before Easter of 1969, Polyclinic Hospital in Harrisburg notified Rad Health that they were in receipt of a broken technetium cow. A cursory investigation suggested that the device had probably been broken while on board a passenger aircraft. The plane then continued to its next destination in New Jersey. The Jersey raddies were so advised, and subsequently impounded the plane for decon. Meanwhile, Rad Health staff located and decontaminated the taxis used to transport the device from the airport to the hospital. An otherwise fine spring evening was spent decontaminating cargo which came in on the same flight as the device. Gerusky decontaminated the hospitals hot lab (Total Quality Management is not new in Radiation Protection).

The summer of 1969 brought the H.B. Fowler project in Wayne. The project involved the removal of radium contaminated soil from this old dial painting facility, at state expense. The soil was barreled and sent to an LLRW facility at West Valley, NY. Instead, it wound up at the Maxey Flats facility in Kentucky, which later became a $uperfund site. The state allegedly shares in the liability for cleanup of Maxey Flats.

In 1969 the Radiological Health Section in the Bureau of Occupational Health was reorganized into the office of Radiological Health which reported directly to the Deputy Secretary for Environmental Health. The basis for this arrangement was the realization that the Department needed to deal with radiation in other environments in addition to the work place.

The construction permit hearings for Beaver Valley Power station began in 1970. Beaver Valley was eventually built on a site adjoining Shippingport.

The Department of Environmental Resources was created in 1971. The new agency pulled several existing organizations together including the Environmental Health Deputate from the Department of Health, the entire former Department of Mines and Mineral Industries, and the entire former Department of Forests and Waters. As part of the transition, the phrase "Radiological Health" was changed to "Radiation Protection", as a means of signaling our departure from the Health Department.

In 1971, the US Atomic Energy Commission contracted with the Department for the monitoring of nuclear power stations in the state. The contract was for the delivery of state generated data to serve as an intercomparison with that of the licensees. The contract was gradually expanded to cover new facilities over the next decade.

The Office of Radiation Health Central Area Office was established in 1972.

In late 1972, Rad Protection, along with much of Department of Environmental Resources (DER) moved into the Fulton Bank Building at Third and Locust Streets, there to dwell until late 1994.

Beginning in 1972, a lot of time was consumed by participation in the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) hearings for construction permits for Limerick Generating Station and for Newbold Island. The latter was a power station proposed for an island in the Delaware River, about a mile from Levittown, PA. The application for Newbold Island was eventually withdrawn.

Our first real radiation emergency plan for nuclear power station accidents was completed in 1973. A novelty in the plan was its dependence on plant conditions rather than field measurements. The reasons for this philosophy included the stark reality that with a travel time of two hours to Peach Bottom, by the time we could get measurements the event could be long over. The other reason was that we really did not have suitable instruments. A great failing of the plan was lack of consideration for public information and the news media.

A lesson in environmental monitoring was learned in 1974. A professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Ernest Sternglass, used pre-operational monitoring data for Beaver Valley to imply that the Shippingport reactor on the same site was contaminating the environment. This was not the case. The underlying cause of the problem was that the data was not scrutinized by the licensee (or anybody else) prior to or after publication. Among other things, fission product I-131 was reported, when the underlying radioactivity was really a radon daughter. The lesson is that any change in reported environmental radiation needs to be investigated.

In 1975 the US Atomic Energy Commission was reorganized into the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the US Energy Research and Development Administration which later became the US Department of Energy.

The mid-'70s were a hot bed of proposed nuclear power projects. These included a liquid metal fast breeder reactor proposed by General Public Utilities (GPU). It was to be sited near Towanda. The application was later withdrawn. Another was a pair of high temperature gas cooled reactors, known as Fulton Generating Station, proposed by Philadelphia Electric to be sited in southern Lancaster County. This application was also eventually withdrawn.

The great interest in the future of nuclear power led to the consideration of mining for uranium in some of the natural deposits in Pennsylvania. This interest prevailed until the seminal event of 1979.

One novel project which did come to be in that time frame was the light water breeder reactor core for Shippingport. The core bred fissionable U-233 from Th-232. Reactivity was controlled by moving the fuel. The core achieved criticality in early 1977. This was a disappointment to Admiral Rickover. He wanted it to start up in the year of the bicentennial, 1976, again on December 2, the anniversary of the Stagg Field caper.

The first radiation event to place Pennsylvania in the Doonsbury comic strip was the fallout episode of 1976. In late September an atmospheric test of a nuclear device was conducted by the Peoples Republic of China. The leading edge of the fallout arrived over the northeast United States, the first Sunday of October, along with an intense low pressure system. The net effect was a lot of fission products being deposited via rainwater. None of this was detectable by air monitoring.

The next day, workers at Peach Bottom arrived at work contaminated. For obscure reasons, this facility used a portal monitor to check workers on the way into work. Portal monitors would be heard from again. The utility sampled the rainwater in parking lot puddles, and found short-lived fission products I-131 and 132. This led them to believe the contamination was from the plant, but the mystery was that nothing onsite was off normal. They were not aware of the weapons test. Non-essential workers were sent home. According to plan, PECO notified Rad Protection. Radiation Protection, being aware of the test, called around to other facilities able to do sampling. The outcome was that fission products were all over the state, that it was not a Peach Bottom problem. The greatest concern was the contamination of the milk supply. The highest concentration found was 400 pCi/liter, which was the highest ever found in PA, including the Three Mile Island Accident. We got a lot of press out of that one.

In 1978, a geologist for DER contacted us about his observation of a lot of natural radiation anomalies in a physiographic province known as the Reading Prong in south eastern PA. The BRP plan was to do some rudimentary field work, particularly in the food chain, to get some idea of the dose contribution from natural stuff beginning in the spring of 1979. That indoor radon would be the real problem never dawned on us. The project was canceled due to the biggie event of 1979.

The second event which brought PA into the Doonsbury strip, as well as the Funky Winkerbean strip, was the accident at Three Mile Island. It began at 04:00 on Wednesday March 28, 1979. Were it not for that event, most, if not all of us would be earning our living somewhere else! (For a blow-by-blow account, please refer to Volume I of the Rogovin Report). This event consumed all of the headquarters staff time for months. Almost all of the staff of the field offices were called in for temporary duty. (MAKE YOUR PLANS NOW, FOR THE NEXT BIGGIE!)

The highest milk I-131 concentration detected as a result of the accident at TMI was about 20 pCi/l in nearby dairy herds.

A lesson learned from the accident was the value of a bureau presence at the site, in the form of a nuclear engineer completely familiar with the operations of the facility and its management. This lesson lead to the organization of the Division of Nuclear Safety.

The year of 1980 brought the beginning of state involvement in the low level radioactive waste issue. It also saw the organization and operation of the citizens monitoring program for the venting of accident generated Kr-85 at TMI. Accident related issues continued to draw staff attention for the rest of the decade. Personal injury suits are slated to be heard beginning in 1995, 16 years after the event.

In response to the TMI accident, the first Radiation Protection Act was promulgated in 1980 by Governor Thornburgh. The Act provided the means to fund the nuclear-power related activities of the Bureau by assessing fees from the nuclear utilities. It also specifically mandated most of the Bureau activities, which assures its continuation. The Act also removed the atomic energy development mandate from Department responsibilities.

Another event in 1980 was a reorganization to produce the DER Bureau of Laboratories, including the Rad Lab.

The Western Area Office was kept busy with the remediation of the Cannonsburg facility. At a cost of $38 million, 10 perecent of it state funds, and 90 percent federal, an old uranium processing facility related to the Manhattan Project began remediation in 1982, and lasted through 1985. The project reduced the risk of lung cancer from evolving radon by one case per 100 years.

Another event for the Western Area Office was the Jollytown caper of 1982, which involved a drill bit puncturing an Americium-241 source.

A portal monitor again brought bad news in 1984 with the discovery of contaminated steel rebars being brought on site at the US Department of Energy facility at Los Alamos, NM. This lead to a nationwide campaign for more of the stuff, including items such as table legs. The source was steel imported from Mexico, which had been contaminated with Co-60. As a result of this occurrence, scrap yards and landfills began to install portal monitors. These devices continue to bring us new business.

The summer of 1984 brought new interest in the Lansdowne house on Stratford Avenue. The house, along with the other half of the duplex, became a $uperfund $ite. The total cost there ran over $7 million.

Another seminal event for the Bureau occurred on December 19, 1984. Notification was received from the chief raddie at Limerick that a worker was coming to work contaminated. The contamination was detected by a portal monitor. The contamination was natural. The utility had the worker's home checked, and found extremely high concentrations of radon there. The Limerick chief raddie reasoned correctly that the problem was not a utility problem, but rather a state problem. The radon story began with that phone call.

In the early months of the radon project, attention was confined to the Boyertown area. A field office was established in Gilbertsville. By the end of 1985, the project included the entire Reading Prong and adjacent areas. By late 1986, the program began to go statewide.

The big event of 1986 was the accident at Chernobyl in the USSR. It occurred on April 26. By the first week of May, fission product I-131 was detected throughout the milk supply of PA to concentrations of about 50 pCi/l (As a point of interest, the accident was brought to world attention following a report from Sweden that workers at a Swedish power station were coming to work contaminated. It was detected by the facility portal monitors).

In 1987 the Department was dragged into the remediation of a state-owned facility at Quehanna in Clearfield County. The facility is administered by the Bureau of Forestry. It is contaminated with material left behind by previous tenants. NRC is requiring that the facility be remediated. (This caper is ongoing).

From 1988 to the present, the Bureau has been involved in the decommissioning of a GPU owned test reactor at Saxton, south of Huntington. Activities included a 1990 independent measurements project using insitu gamma spectroscopy. Special studies were also conducted by a DOE contractor in 1988 and 89 to determine whether contamination was detectable offsite.

Again, in 1991, a portal monitor brought us more business. This time it was a load of oil and gas brine sludges tripping the monitor at a landfill. This brought us into the examination of naturally-occurring radioactive material (NORM) in waste streams.

The saga of Lansdowne continued in 1991, this time on Austin Avenue. A uranium refining process which operated in the early years of the century, led to the distribution of radium contamination of the facility itself, and many other structures in the neighborhood. This became yet another Superfund Site.

The year 1991, in a way, marked the end of an era for BRP with the retirement of Tom Gerusky. He was succeeded by Bill Dornsife.

1997 brought the end of Bill Dornsife's era. He was succeeded by Keith Kerns (acting).

In February 1999 our present bureau director, Dave Allard, was hired. Some of the new major tasks undertaken by Dave and his BRP staff is managing the Quehanna project, the agreement state status with NRC, a new Decommissioning and Decontamination section, and a guidance document for addressing radioactive material entering the solid waste stream.