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Predicting wildfire particulate matter and hypothetical re-emission of radiological Cs-137 contamination incidents

Author(s): Kirk R. Baker, Sang Don Lee, Paul Lemieux, Scott Hudson, Benjamin N. Murphy, Jesse O. Bash, Shannon N. Koplitz, Thien Khoi V Nguyen, Wei Min Hao, Stephen P. Baker, Emily Lincoln
Year Published: 2021

Radiological release incidents can potentially contaminate widespread areas with radioactive materials and decontamination efforts are typically focused on populated areas, which means radionuclides may be left in forested areas for long periods of time. Large wildfires in contaminated forested areas have the potential to reintroduce these radionuclides into the atmosphere and cause exposure to first responders and downwind communities. One important radionuclide contaminant released from radiological incidents is radiocesium (137Cs) due to high yields and its long half-life of 30.2 years. An Eulerian 3D photochemical transport model was used to estimate potential ambient impacts of 137Cs re-emission due to wildfire following hypothetical radiological release scenarios. The Community Multiscale Air Quality (CMAQ )model did well at predicting levels and periods of increased PM2.5 carbon due to wildfire smoke at routine surface monitors in California during the summer of 2016. The model also did well at capturing the extent of the surface mixing layer compared to aerosol lidar measurements. Emissions from a large hypothetical wildfire were introduced into the wildland-urban interface (WUI) impacted by a hypothetical radiological release event. While ambient concentrations tended to be highest near the fire, the highest population committed effective dose equivalent by inhalation to an adult from 137Cs over an hour was downwind where wind flows moved smoke to high population areas. Seasonal variations in meteorology (wind flows) can result in differential population impacts even in the same metropolitan area. Modeled post-incident ambient levels of 137Cs both near these wildfires and further downwind in nearby urban areas were well below levels that would necessitate population evacuation or warrant other protective action recommendations such as shelter-in-place. These results suggest that 1) the modeling system captures local to regional scale transport and levels of PM2.5 from wildfire and 2) first responders and downwind population would not be expected to be at elevated risk from the initial inhalathion exposure of 137Cs re-emission.

Citation: Baker, Kirk R.; Lee, Sang Don; Lemieux, Paul; Hudson, Scott; Murphy, Benjamin N.; Bash, Jesse O.; Koplitz, Shannon N.; Nguyen, Thien Khoi V.; Hao, Wei Min; Baker, Stephen; Lincoln, Emily. 2021. Predicting wildfire particulate matter and hypothetical re-emission of radiological Cs-137 contamination incidents. Science of The Total Environment. 795(11): 148872. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.148872.
Topic(s): Smoke & Air Quality, Smoke Emissions, Smoke Emissions and Inventory
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 23629
Record updated: Oct 18, 2021