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Washington, Oregon state officials prep up for worst-case radiological event scenario from Russia and Ukraine conflict

The Columbia River is one of the areas that is closely monitored by Northwest agencies keeping an eye on potential radiological releases.
Anna King
NW News Network
The Columbia River is one of the areas that is closely monitored by Northwest agencies keeping an eye on potential radiological releases.

Northwest officials are preparing in case a radiological event should occur anywhere in the world because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Here are the worrisome scenarios – a radioactive release from Ukraine’s damaged Chernobyl waste site, which Russian troops now occupy.

Or a worse senario, a nuclear bomb.

LiveScience reports there are already higher levels of radioactive activity in Ukraine around Chernobyl, possibly from the soil being disturbed in the exclusion zone.

Officials in Oregon and Washington are at a heightened level of readiness. Their task would be to detect it, understand what it is and where it came from and tell the public how to respond.

Oregon Emergency Management officials say they’re prepping for a range of potential impacts of what they are calling “the Ukraine/Russia crisis.” That includes anything from cyber terrorism to a radiological event.

Mark Henry leads Washington state’s Radiological Emergency Preparedness and Response team. He lists some of the items that have been assembled by his team for a possible event:

“... radioactive contamination survey instrumentation, air samplers,” he says, “when I’m talking supplies, I’m talking smears for actually taking deposition samples, I’m talking containers for milk samples or water samples …”

Henry says he works with about 75 people at Washington’s Department of Health who specialize in radiological problems.

There are a surprising number of events already in the state, he says. Henry says it can include anything from a radium dial watch breaking, incidents at Hanford, fire hazmat teams that find material in people’s houses or even a breach of radioactive material in a medical facility – like at Harborview in Seattle in 2019.

Henry says he’s worked hard to make sure his team is ready for many types of possible incidents for decades. Over the decades, supplies, procedures and protocols have improved. But sometimes resources could still be overrun.

“There is only so far you can go,” Henry says. “There is only so much money, there’s only so much time and there’s only so many people. I feel like we are adequately prepared for some type of nuclear event that would happen – over in the Ukraine.”

But he noted that should an incident happen in Washington or Oregon it would be hard to ever prepare enough.

Henry and his colleagues are currently coordinating with the: U.S. Department of Energy, Pacific Northwest National Lab, National Guard and Washington’s emergency management teams.

Henry says in any event, the focus would be: “What is the risk from the radioactive isotopes that we’re seeing to our citizens?”

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.