EPA moves radiation lab out of Las Vegas

Two tractor-trailer rigs rolled out of the Environmental Protection Agency‘s gated lot across from UNLV on Monday on a journey to relocate equipment for gauging radioactive contamination to an EPA facility in Montgomery, Ala.

Described as a cost-saving measure by the EPA, the move drew criticism from two protesters and UNLV chemistry professor Vern Hodge.

Hodge, whose work since 1970 has focused on radioactive analysis in the environment, said the move takes away a first-response asset.

"They need the mobile lab to gather data to help first responders ... determine where the radioactivity is traveling and how fast it‘s traveling, and if it‘s traveling in a way that people will be at risk," he said.

The protesters claim the EPA is leaving Western states, particularly Nevada and California, without a first-response tool to detect and measure radiation from a terrorist strike involving a so-called "€œdirty bomb,"€ or from a nuclear power plant accident, or from a mishap involving transportation of dangerous, uranium-tainted waste from Oak Ridge, Tenn., for disposal at the Nevada National Security Site.

"I think it‘s a bad decision considering they‘re planning on moving radioactive waste to the Nevada Test Site and Yucca Mountain," said Ming Lai.

Ming held a pink sign that read "Keep the Rad Lab in Las Vegas" while standing next to another protester, Laura Marie Taylor, when the mobile lab rigs left the EPA lot off Maryland Parkway shortly after 11 a.m. Both Ming and Taylor are council members of the faith-based anti-nuclear group, the Nevada Desert Experience.

The EPA would have to spend $100,000 per year in contract support to maintain the Mobile Environmental Radiation Laboratory (MERL) in Las Vegas. Instead, that work can be done by in-house experts at the EPA‘s Montgomery, Ala., facility.

"While Las Vegas staff may continue to support the MERL mission, moving the MERL allows Las Vegas to focus on the field mission of training teams and maintaining field equipment as first response assets to a radiological emergency," the EPA said in an emailed response to a Las Vegas Review-Journal query.

EPA officials said the mobile lab was designed for use later in an emergency response but not as a first response asset. From Alabama, it would take three to four days to reach Las Vegas. Meanwhile, monitoring assets provided by national laboratories "can be called upon to analyze samples necessary for public health decision making," they said.

Contact Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308. Follow @KeithRogers2 on Twitter.