Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Radioactivity Release from Natural Gas Production

Imagine if you can a nuclear power plant releasing radioactive materials to the environment at levels hundreds of times greater than Federal Drinking Water Standards - and the responsible federal authority responded that they were unaware of any releases. In the case of our Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that's exactly what is going on.

I’m not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.”
Statement by EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson
Responding to questions before the U.S. House Oversight Committee
May 2011 [Reference 1].

I am guessing that with all the ongoing efforts to write new "Clean Water Rules" aimed at shutting down  power plants that have "once through cooling systems" (rather than cooling towers) and discharge warm water that the Obama Adminstration's EPA Head didn't have time to read the New York Times series on "Drilling Down". [Reference 2].

I found the graphic below from the New York Times particularly informative.

Part of Ms. Jackson's deliberate ignorance of what is going on...... is actually a result of Congressional intent at the urging of certain oil and gas interests. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted fracking from EPA regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Its not a new development either. This monkey business has been going on for years.

Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1976 as an amendment to the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 in an effort to enact more comprehensive waste disposal standards nationwide. Through RCRA, Congress declared that the “disposal of solid waste . . . without careful planning and management [was] a danger to human health and the environment.” Congress later amended RCRA with the Solid Waste Disposal Act Amendments of 1980. One of the 1980 amendments, the so-called Bentsen and Bevill Amendments, temporarily exempted “drilling fluids, produced waters, and other wastes associated with the exploration, development, or production of crude oil or natural gas” from regulation under RCRA.Under the Bentsen Amendment, Congress directed EPA to conduct a study to determine whether or not drilling and production wastes should be regulated as hazardous wastes under RCRA. The studies continue [Reference 3] and the best option put forth -- to the pleasure of the oil and gas industry is dilution -- by a process called "Landspreading" which is basically spreading the contamination around over large areas of land.

What is the Source of this Radioactive Contamination?
Our earth is naturally radioactive and is already heavily laden with naturally occurring radioactive isotopes of Uranium, Thorium, Radium, Radon. The figure below from the US Geological Survey shows the relative abundance of several of these naturally occurring isotopes.

Far from being rare elements, Uranium and Thorium are as abundant as common Nickel. Theses elements and their decay products can be bound up in the rock for millenia, slowly decaying back to Lead while emitting alpha, beta, and gamma rays. This continuous decay is one of the heat sources of geothermal energy. But, when drilling deep into the earth's crust, it is possible to run into natural deposits of such ores and their radioactive decay products such as Radium and Radon. Drilling for oil and natural gas is accomplished by pulverizing the underlying rock with heavy rotating drills and flushing the materials out of the exploratory well to the surface using drilling mud. So the drilling mud can come to the surface laden with Uranium, Radium, and Thorium.

As noted by the US Geological Survey in Reference 4:

"In 1989 the American Petroleum Institute sponsored a preliminary nationwide reconnaissance of measureable radioactivity at the exterior surfaces of oil-field equipment. The results of this non-statistical sampling indicated that gamma-ray radiation levels exceeded natural background radiation levels at 42% of the sites. Radiation levels greater than five times the median background of all site were found at approximately 10% of the sites. Most of the sites with markedly higher radioactivity were concentrated in specific geographical areas such as the Gulf Coast, northeast Texas, southeast Illinois, and south-central Kansas. Additional surveys by some state agencies identified radioactive oil-field equipment in northern Michigan and eastern Kentucky. Pipe casings, fittings, and tanks that have an extended history of contact with produced water are more likely to contain radioactive deposits than other parts of the plumbing system at oil-field production sites. Soil in the immediate vacinity of production sites may be unusually radioactive."

The problem then becomes: What to do with this contaminated equipment and soil? Its contaminated. Anyone working in or around the mud can become contaminated. At the end of the day, the workers on the drill rigs hop in their pick-up trucks and head to town -- where the material gets further spread around.

Radiological Effects of NORM
This type of radioactive drilling waste material goes by the accronym of "NORM" -or- Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material. NORM is frequently found in settling ponds near drilling sites, inside of fluid tanks, on drills, and drill structures. The magnitude of human exposure depends on the relative Radium and Uranium concentration of the NORM. As a point of comparison: depending on where you live your background radiation dose can be 200 - 500 mR/yr. The figures below taken from Reference 3 show the projected doses one obtains as a function of the activity per gram of contaiminated drilling mud and the increased risk of latent cancer.  From this figure we note that any mud with concentrations above ~100pCi/g are going to result in doses that are significantly above normal background radiation levels -- hence the need to dilute the drilling mud by "Landspreading" it.

What I found interesting in the study was that having a home built over "Landspread" NORM results in higher risks than the risks to the workers who did the Landspreading.

My Take on All of this ?

I work for an electric company that operates nuclear power plants. I just finished my day-long Radiation Worker requalification training. I had to pass a 100 question test on: radiation effects, federal dose limits for workers and the general public, proper use of dosimetry, how to prevent the spread of microscopic quantities of radioactive materials out of the plant, how to use a personal frisker and properly exit the radiation control check point, how to properly use a radiation work permit, how to don Anti-Cs, proper As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) practices, chemistry controls, costs of low level waste, and why as an industry we focus on everything to minmize the spread of contamination. 

Then I see the oil and gas industry mishandling radioactive materials and pretending there is no radioactive contamination, and thus no need for dosimetry, ignoring worker exposure, transporting contaminated drilling equipment from state to state, and when the drilling at one site is completed their solution to dealing with radioactively contaminated mud is to "Landspread" it. On top of this, we have politicians who protect the oil and gas industry by exempting them from dealing with their radioactive waste disposal by exemptions, and federal regulators in charge of environmental protection pretending nothing is going on.

So much for the clean energy from America's Natural Gas.

[1] Dr. Robert Peltier, PE, "Fracking Problems", Power Magazine, August 1, 2011

[2] "Toxic Contamination from Natural Gas Wells", New York Times, February 27, 2011.

[3] K.P.Smith, D.L.Blunt, J.J. Arnish, "Potential Radiological  Doses Associated with the Disposal of Petroleum Industry NORM via Landspreading", DOE/BC/W-31-109, Final Report, September 1998.

[4] "Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) in Produced Water and Oil-Field Equipment - An Issue for the Energy Industry", US Geological Survey Fact Sheet FS-142-99, issued September 1999.


  1. @John - while I agree that the difference in standards is frustrating, I believe that the healthier response is the one from the oil and gas industry. Doses that are within the range of the variation of natural background radiation have proven to be far less dangerous than the radiation protection industry would have us believe.

    Myron Pollycove, Jerry Cuttler, Sohei Kondo, and Don Luckey - among others - have published numerous works in peer reviewed journals documenting the health effects of low level radiation. The Health Physics Society issued a position statement in 1996, with regular updates, that includes the following statement:

    "There is substantial and convincing scientific evidence for health risks following high-dose exposures. However, below 5–10 rem (which includes occupational and environmental exposures), risks of health effects are either too small to be observed or are nonexistent."

    The nuclear industry should follow the lead of their commercially more successful competition. Low radiation dose rates are not harmful and should not inhibit exploitation of useful materials extracted from the crust of our home planet, the place where our biology evolved to handle the normal influences, including radiation.

  2. Thanks Rod Adams Interesting, but is it all to be believed. Radiation badge.
    Ive heard stories of just how much radiation there is in said belts, and what would be needed to shield from it even for a few minutes.
    From what I understand not a single Apollo mission had appropriate shielding. Only the shuttles had, and they didn't tend to go That far out to the radiation.

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