Newspaper: The Dickinsonian
Date: April 12, 1979
Article: Physics department aids Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Author: Lisa A. Pawelski

Special to The Dickinsonian

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has requested the Physics department’s assistance in monitoring radiation levels near the Three Mile Island reactor. A group of physics professors and majors, assisted by more than 40 student volunteers, has been working since Thursday, March 29 to obtain accurate scientific information about the radioactivity which has been released from the TMI reactor during the past two weeks.

Small amounts of radioactive substances are released from the plant during normal operations. It is possible to predict what additional radioactive species might be present as the result of a mishap by consulting the reactor’s environmental impact statement and other literature.

Qualitative identification of the radioactive substances present near the reactor has been done at the College. Physics department chairman John Luetzelschwab, who lived less than two miles from the reactor, and volunteer students collected soil samples from several sites within a few miles of TMI. The soil samples are then placed over a detection crystal for six hours or more. Via a complex series of amplifiers and sorters, it is possible to detect photons (which are the result of one type of radioactive decay) and determine with what energy they are being emitted from the soil, one can ascertain which radioactive elements are present in the sample.

This type of analysis has been done not only on soil samples, but on rainwater and well water taken from the vicinity of the reactor, and air samples from Carlisle. So far, a small amount of xenon has been found in the samples taken near the reactor. Xenon has a short half-life; consequently, its biological effects are minimal.

In addition, the soil samples are scrutinized for the presence of iodine. So far, amounts of iodine detected near the plant have been so small that they may be attributed to statistical fluctuation of the data. Overall, even the highest radiation levels detected at the plant boundary have been far below those detected during the Chinese atmospheric testing of 1976.

During the height of the TMI incident, the physics department used a Geiger counter to obtain crude readings of atmospheric radiation levels in Carlisle and reported their findings hourly to local radio stations. This was done as a public service, at the suggestion of the College’s senior officers. All readings were normal, with the exception of a brief period of slightly elevated levels on the morning of April 2. At the same time of the elevated reading, Carlisle was directly downwind from the plant, and rain was falling. One should note that background radiation normally increases three- to five-fold during rain-showers, as naturally-present radioactive radon gas dissolves in rainwater and is carried to earth.