Housed in a nondescript office park in Las Vegas, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has an elite team of radiation experts trained to respond to a nuclear disaster. One of their most important tools is a Mobile Environmental Radiation Lab known as the "MERL."
A set of three large vehicles, the MERL can be in Southern California in a matter of hours after a terrorist attack or nuclear accident. And it allows the radiation response team to quickly identify and track dangerous radiation spreading across the region.
"The laboratory would be used to make emergency response decisions as to where people are okay to go, and where they can't go," explains Richard Flotard, a retired EPA radiation chemist.
But the NBC4 I-Team has obtained an EPA internal memo explaining that the agency is moving the mobile lab from Las Vegas to Alabama, leaving the state far removed from what California's Office of Emergency Services calls a "first response" tool in the case of nuclear attack or accident.
Homeland Security officials have long worried that the port of LA, or downtown LA, could be a prime target for terrorists to detonate a nuclear device.
The EPA says it plans to move the lab to Montgomery, Alabama, home of another EPA radiation facility, this summer because of "tight resources." That means the lab would have to drive across 7 states, taking 4-6 days for it to get to California in case of a nuclear event.
"Leaving the western U.S. without this critical resource will increase response time to our state, jeopardizing our combined ability to adequately protect the public" during a nuclear disaster, said Jennifer Chappelle of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services in a letter to the EPA.
Dr. Vern Hodge, a radiation scientist at the University of Nevada Las Vegas who has been studying radiation for decades, told NBC4 that "it's a criminal act if you remove this rapid response unit from the west coast."
The EPA's official in charge of the mobile radiation lab, Mike Flynn, defended his decision to save money and move the lab to Alabama to be housed at another EPA office.
"Our view is that it (the lab) is not part of a first response. That it comes in later, and that there are other assets, particularly with the Department of Energy that are brought in, in the first days of a response," Flynn told NBC4.
California's Office of Emergency Services disagrees. "State and local governments consider these lab systems as first response assets," says Chappelle in her letter. And she writes that California "strongly objects" to the decision to move the lab.
But the EPA's Flynn told NBC4 he’s moving ahead with his decision to move the lab to Alabama, where there's already a second mobile radiation lab. He plans to take that lab out of service, leaving the entire U.S. with only one mobile radiation lab in case of nuclear disasters.
"If you move this asset, they are on purpose jeopardizing the lives of people," UNLV's radiation scientist Dr. Hodge told NBC4.