The federal government’s radiation alert network in California is not fully functional, leaving the stretch of coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco without the crucial real-time warning system in the event of a nuclear emergency.
Six of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 12 California sensors — including the three closest to the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant — are sending data with "anomalies" to the agency’s laboratory in Montgomery, Ala., said Mike Bandrowski, manager of the EPA’s radiation program.
The problem delays from 30 minutes to several hours the updating of a database that would be critical for warning the public in case of a sudden radiation danger from air wafting to the United States from a foreign country, for example, or from a radiation leak at a domestic nuclear facility.
The lag has not been a concern during the Japanese nuclear crisis because the minuscule amounts of radiation that have reached California have posed no threat to human health, and the plume of irradiated air from Japan is so widespread that other equipment from Washington to Los Angeles has been able to monitor it in real time, Bandrowski said.
The agency’s critics, however, say the weakness in the EPA system could pose a public health concern.
"The unreliability of the EPA monitoring effort revealed by this event raises troubling questions about whether Californians would receive timely warning to evacuate, or take other protective actions, in case of a nuclear accident here," said Dan Hirsch, a nuclear policy lecturer at UC Santa Cruz and president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, an anti-nuclear group.
The troubled transmissions are part of the federal RadNet system, which is "designed to protect the public by notifying scientists, in near real time, of elevated levels of radiation so they can determine whether protective action is required," according to a recent press release from the agency.
Without immediate information from RadNet, state and local emergency managers would be dependent on the private owners of nuclear power facilities to alert them in the first hours of a dangerous radiation leak from a domestic source.