Nevadan at Work: Scientist works to share the stories in Nevada's archaeology

Few local jobs have challenges greater than communicating critical nuclear industry information to Southern Nevada residents.

Whether the subject is Yucca Mountain or results from two-dozen monitoring stations in three states, it's not an easy task. The words "nuclear" and "radiation" often generate unease among residents.

Ted Hartwell, associate research scientist with the Desert Research Institute, believes public participation in radiological monitoring is key to understanding Nevada's nuclear history and alleviating some of those fears.

Hartwell has managed the Community Environmental Monitoring Program since 1991, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The program, founded in 1981, is a network of 29 monitoring stations in communities surrounding and downwind of the National Security Site, formerly the Nevada Test Site.

These sites, in Nevada, California and Utah, monitor the airborne environment for man-made radioactivity that could result from test-site activity.

Hartwell said he and his colleagues maintain a secure, high-quality network of monitoring stations that detect problems that might emanate from the test site. He said these sites also provide a direct, hands-on role for the general public in the monitoring and dissemination of the information.

Hartwell, who is also an accomplished musician, said access to reliable information was crucial to informing local residents following the 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.

"The fallout from Fukushima reopened some old wounds, especially for residents downwind of the Nevada Test Site," he said.

Question: How did you get your love of music?

Answer: Both my parents are professional musicians. That's where I got my love of music. I'm a cellist with the Las Vegas Philharmonic. The joke in my family is if the archeology didn't work out, I had my music to fall back on.

Question: Was it the Desert Research Institute or the Philharmonic that brought you to Las Vegas?

Answer: The Desert Research Institute. It was one of about five places that I applied to after graduate school. It was one place that I hadn't heard back from. I called them and I was hired originally to supervise cultural research work out at the Yucca mountain project.

The DRI was involved in archeological research, so I basically take crews out before any projects started by the U.S. Department of Energy. One of the surveys that needed to be done by law is an archeological survey. ... Archeologists have to be given time before that to find out if there are artifacts that need to be mapped out and collected. So my first eight or nine years of my career were mostly spent on archeology digs out on the Nevada Test Site (Now known as the National Security Site).

Question: How did you get involved with the Las Vegas Philharmonic?

Answer: I actually played for the Lubbock, Texas, Philharmonic, so I had that background. I was singing somewhat professionally when I first moved here with the Southern Nevada Musical Arts Society and then I was hit with a very strange voice disorder that requires me to get shots directly into my vocal cords once a year so that I can maintain a normal speaking voice. That kind of put the kibosh on my singing.

Back in 1999, it was a period of time when the old Nevada Symphony Orchestra was having difficulty and the Las Vegas Philharmonic kind of rose out of its ashes. So, at that time, they were looking for additional musicians. I also play at the Guardian Angel Cathedral on the Strip. One of the violinists I played with there was the concert master for the organization.

Question: What is the Desert Research Institute?

Answer: I describe it as the nonprofit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. So it's primarily a research institute. We are not a teaching campus; we don't offer degrees, although we do support lots of graduate students from the University of Nevada, Reno, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and from the community college system as well.

So often the grants we get are to support some of those student in their research. We support ourselves through grants and contracts. We are able to get largely through the federal government, the U.S. Department of Defense. But about 20 percent is local and state government grants and contracts. We also get around 8 (percent) or 9 percent of our funding from the National Science Foundation.

Our mission is excellence in environmental research and to be able to convey that research and the technology that is developed from it to both Nevada and the world.

Question: What kind of landscape does Nevada provide for educational purposes?

Answer: From an archeological perspective, the land surfaces in this area have been stable for thousands or even tens of thousands of years. So what that means is often the archeological culture that people have left behind is at or near the surface. So it's easy to find.

But the problem that conveys is 13,000 years of occupation is all in the same area. Separating out what materials are 13,000 years old from those that might be a few centuries old can be a little tricky.

Now the Nevada Security Site, which most people remember as the Nevada Test Site ... is an ideal place from an archeological standpoint because you don't have public access, you don't have a lot of the looting and picking up of artifacts that you might have in other lands. So we might find sites in pristine condition, especially dry rock shelters where you would find perishable items like basketry or yucca fiber sandals that are centuries or even thousands of years old.

My particular background is in stone tools. When I originally got offered the position out here I had no idea what the Nevada Test Site was and I'd never heard of Yucca Mountain.

Question: Any interesting experiences working on the test site?

Answer: During my first month on the job, we were doing a flood-chasing survey. ... We were walking along one of these drainages where they wanted to see if there was a major flood event where would materials go. If the depository were placed out there, would they have to worry that if there was a major flood ... where would it go?

So we were walking through the middle of this large drainage and spotted what I though was this very spooky facility ... I found myself thinking about what came out of there.

... This big concrete berm had been built across the ditch. There was a big steel door hanging off its hinges, so we stuck our heads inside and saw files and control panels. All I heard was we have a problem because another archeologist had picked up this metal sign that was ... on the ground that read: "Danger radiation area, keep out." I thought, "I'm toast, I'm fried."

I didn't share this story with my mom for about eight years. They checked us out ... to make sure we are OK.

Question: What is the Community Environmental Monitoring Program?

Answer: We monitor several things. We monitor background ambient radiation that's real time. If you go to the website you can see that. We also have an air sampler that runs 24 hours a day at each of the station sites. And there are 29 sites across Nevada, California and southwestern Utah. Those filters are collected by the public every two weeks and then are sent to an independent lab and analyzed for alpha and beta radiation.

Contact reporter Chris Sieroty at or 702-477-3893. Follow @sierotyfeatures on Twitter.