LAS VEGAS (KSNV MyNews3.com) — First-time visitors to Las Vegas experience sensory overload as they take in the bright lights of the Strip.
While tourists aim smart phones at the neon, scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy scan southern Nevada and other parts of the country for signs of radioactive dangers.
A kaleidoscope of colors on monitors at the national Remote Sensing Laboratory, a facility at Nellis under the Department of Energy, shows levels of radiation, usually the normal rates given off naturally.
“Everything gives off radiation fairly naturally — bananas, you and me, this concrete we are standing on," says senior scientist Rajah Mena. She and her colleagues watch for abnormalities.
"So if something actually does occur, we know what the clean area looked like before we got started," Mena says.
Southern Nevada has not varied from its normal levels of radiation, but what would happen if a threat became a reality?
"It's not just what we are exposed to externally, or what we put in our mouths, but what we breathe in as well," Mena says of what her lab measures.
In a nuclear emergency, Mena and her team would travel in a helicopter to measure how far radioactivity had spread.
The lab’s helicopter, capable of flying as low as 50 feet off the ground, can pinpoint a concentration of dangerous radioactivity.
"It allows us to see contamination levels that were so low that we could make agricultural decisions," she says.
Returning to the ground, Mena says, “I want to make sure that you weren't contaminated with it, so we will do a survey of your exposed skin to make sure nothing has gone on to you."
The team conducts practice drills to prepare for real radiological events.
The biggest recent event was the 2011 nuclear disaster at a power plant in Fukushima, Japan.
The U.S. Remote Sensing Lab at Nellis was asked to send a team to measure radioactivity around the damaged plant.
"Definitely the magnitude of that disaster was not something I have experienced as a health physicist myself in my professional lifetime, so this was definitely a big thing," says Mena, who was with the first team dispatched to Japan.
Mena is proud of the lab’s team, “but after the event in Fukushima, I am even more confident that we do a great job here.”
"We really are the gold standard when it comes to radiological emergency response,” she says.