Radiation Testing for Water and Soil

Radioactive materials give off a form of energy that travels in waves or particles. This energy is called radiation. When a person comes in contact with radiation, the energy gets into the body. For example, when a person has an x-ray, he or she is exposed to radiation. Laboratories can test water and soil to find out if they contain certain radioactive materials.

Testing Private Drinking Water for Radiation

Once every month, the Health Department Laboratory tests private drinking water supplies of selected residences near the Vermont Yankee site boundary. To date, none of these wells have shown contamination with tritium or other radionuclides that would be associated with a nuclear reactor.

For Vernon residents or other people who are interested in having their private drinking water supplies tested, public health laboratories will analyze private well water for tritium.

If you want your water tested for tritium:

The State of Maine Health and Environmental Testing Lab
Tel: (207) 287-2727
Contact person: Pat Boudreau

Test America Inc. – Richland Washington
Tel: (509) 375-3131 ext. 164
Contact person: Christi Hayes
This is a private lab, not a public health lab.

Westchester County Department of Labs and Research
Tel: (914) 231-1531
Contact person: Robert Hilbrandt, Jr.

Please contact the laboratories directly for information about sampling bottles, quantity of water needed, turnaround times, and cost.

Find out more about or more information about testing your private drinking water.

Testing Soil for Radiation

Soil Contamination at Vermont Yankee
There was a report of tritium in groundwater at Vermont Yankee on January 7, 2010, which ended up being an unintentional underground release of radioactive material. This also meant that other radioisotopes could have contaminated the environment, which soil testing confirmed. Although the soil at Vermont Yankee has been contaminated with radioactive materials, there is no known exposure or risk to the public.

Soil Analysis
Strontium-90, cesium-137, zinc-65, manganese-54, and cobalt-60 have all been detected in soil that was collected for laboratory analysis. Soil samples were taken from various locations and depths below the excavation area outside the Advanced Off-Gas (AOG) pipe tunnel that was found to have caused this leak.

About the Sampling and Analyses

These radioisotopes have all been detected at greater concentrations and deeper in the ground than would be expected from nuclear fallout or weapons testing long ago. This is evidence that radioisotopes in addition to tritium washed out of the AOG pipe tunnel into the environment with the leaking nuclear reactor water.

Soil testing done immediately after another leak was discovered by Vermont Yankee on May 28 also detected these as well as several other radioisotopes that decay quickly and are no longer detectable within days or months: chromium-51, cobalt-58, barium-140, and lanthanum-140.

The concentrations of strontium-90 and cesium-137 found in soil samples taken from the excavation around the AOG pipe tunnel are much greater than would be expected from fallout. In the February 26 set of soil samples, both were measured at much greater concentrations than are found in surface soils in Vermont and around the world.

In the March 17 and 18 set of soil samples, cesium-137 was found at as much as 75 times what would be expected in surface soils. Analysis by Vermont Yankee of concrete mud and construction debris in the AOG pipe tunnel also confirmed the presence of cesium-137.

As part of its ongoing environmental surveillance, the Health Department has tested soil samples from two sites in the state not associated with Vermont Yankee and confirmed cesium-137 at concentrations consistent with past nuclear fallout. In 2008, cesium-137 was measured at 86 and at 168 picocuries per kilogram (pCi/kg).

At the request of the Health Department, samples of mud and construction debris from within the tunnel were also taken for analysis. Split samples were analyzed by the Health Department Laboratory. Samples were also analyzed by an independent laboratory under contract with the Health Department for “hard to detect” radionuclides such as strontium-90, iron-55 and nickel-63.

Laboratory Results and Analysis

Data listings and charts of the separately performed Vermont Department of Health and Vermont Yankee laboratory analyses conducted in 2010.

About Strontium-90 and Cesium-137

Strontium-90 and cesium-137 are both products of nuclear fission, and do not occur naturally in the environment. These isotopes give off radiation and decay over a long period of time. The “half-life” is the length of time it takes to decay to one-half of its original concentration. Strontium-90 has a half-life of 29 years, and cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years.

Strontium-90 is considered one of the more hazardous of the radionuclides associated with nuclear reactors. It is a strong beta emitter. This means that its radiation can pass through the human body, stopped only by a layer of wood, a sheet of aluminum, or sometimes clothing. It behaves chemically much like calcium, and tends to concentrate in the bones and teeth and bone marrow. Strontium-90 is linked to bone cancer, cancer of the soft tissue near bone, and leukemia.

Cesium-137 is a moderately strong gamma emitter. This means that its radiation can pass through the human body, stopped only by a lead shield or several feet of concrete.

Diagram: Alpha/Beta Particles and Gamma Rays Radiation
About Zinc-65, Manganese-54, and Cobalt-60

Zinc-65, manganese-54 and cobalt-60 are all corrosion products. They are produced when steel components in the nuclear reactor corrode. Tiny amounts of the corroded metals circulate in the reactor water, and may be released during re-fueling or maintenance operations.

These isotopes give off radiation and decay over time. The “half-life” is the length of time it takes to decay to one-half of its original concentration. Zinc-65 has a half-life of 244 days. Manganese-54 has a half-life of 313 days. Cobalt-60 has a half-life of 5.3 years and is a strong gamma emitter. This means that its radiation can pass through the human body, and is stopped only by a lead shield or several feet of concrete.