California Loses Important Weapon to Handle Nuclear Disaster

One of the government’s best weapons for responding to a nuclear terrorist attack or accident in Southern California is being moved 2,000 miles away Monday, despite objections from experts and some government officials, the NBC4 I-Team has learned.

It’s a move some lawmakers and emergency response experts believe could leave California vulnerable.

For years, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has housed their Mobile Environmental Radiation Lab, or "MERL," in Las Vegas, so it could respond to a nuclear incident on the West Coast within hours. But today, the agency began moving the lab — comprised of two large trucks — to a new home at an EPA radiation office in Montgomery, Alabama.

"It’s the best radioactivity lab I’ve seen on wheels and it’s better than most stationary radioactivity labs," said Professor Vern Hodge of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who teaches nuclear science at the campus near the MERL’s former home.

"If they move this asset, they are on purpose jeopardizing the lives of people," Hodge added.

Nuclear radiation experts, including current and former employees, tell the NBC4 I-Team that if there was a dirty bomb detonated in the LA area, or an accident at a nuclear power plant, the MERL could quickly identify radiation in the air, water, and soil, and the MERL staff could then help emergency responders decide when and where to evacuate people.

When the MERL was housed in Las Vegas, it could get to a nuclear incident in California’s biggest cities within hours. Now, once it arrives at its new base in Alabama, it could take five days or longer to respond to a disaster on the West Coast.

"Do you want to be the one who says ‘I decided to get rid of this laboratory,’ and then (an incident) happens?" asked Dr. Richard Flotard, a retired US-EPA radiation chemist. Flotard was among the current and former EPA officials who told the I-Team they opposed moving the emergency lab so far from California.

The EPA official in charge of the MERL, Mike Flynn, said he was moving the lab to Alabama to save money, where there’s a second MERL that will be taken out of service. "We don’t have the resources to support two, and also we can accomplish our mission with one," Flynn said.

But lawmakers in several western states asked the EPA in recent weeks to leave the lab in Las Vegas. Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Emergency Services told the EPA in a letter that it “strongly objects” to moving the MERL so far from California.

But the EPA moved ahead with its decision, and Monday morning, without an announcement, rolled the lab out of Las Vegas, beginning its journey to Alabama.

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