Two survey meter sampling instruments used to measure for any radioactivity (contamination) in the labs.

The thick binder that would sit on Patrick Weidinger’s desk was full of meticulous reports dating back to 2017. All of the information was to prove something that he already suspected: Millersville University’s (MU) campus is free of radioactive contamination.

After years of careful planning, testing and documentation, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection approved the request to decommission the MU radiation safety license in the summer of 2019.

Contractor using the sampling instruments (called Ludlum meters) to sample the laboratory for any radioactive contamination.

The conclusion of the process saves the university $8,000 per year in licensing fees.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years. This is proof that we’ve kept students, staff and faculty safe,” said Weidinger, Director of Environmental Health and Safety for Millersville University and the school’s radiation officer since 2000. “We never lost control of radioactive material.  We properly disposed of it. No one was over exposed to radiation. We passed every audit. We never had a single violation of our license.”

A standard tag used for radioactive material.

Radioactive materials are commonly used on college campuses, Weidinger said. Schools with large engineering and science programs use radioactive material for research and teaching purposes.

Millersville did too, until a joint decision between Millersville faculty, the dean, and department chairs decided to decommission the university’s license in 2017.

To do that meant an extensive radioactive material disposal and documentation process headed by Weidinger. The university was responsible for finding a facility to take the radioactive material, and another to document that the science buildings was free of all contamination. This involved testing everything from door handles, desktops and bathroom sinks to ensure no radioactive contamination was left behind.

Though the radioactive material formerly on campus were low-level, it could still be dangerous.

The removal of radioactive material is in line with the ‘Ville’s vision of building a more sustainable campus, Weidinger said.

“We want to try and do things in a sustainable way here,” he said. “Unfortunately radioactive materials, by their nature, are not sustainable. Some last for 10,000 years. The less of those materials that we’re using is better for the environment.”

Newer technologies also made the decision to switch from radioactive materials easier.

Selfie of the “Rad Team” – left to right, Dr. Carol Hepfer, Dr. Susan DiBartolomeis and Patrick Weidinger.

Dr. Carol Hepfer, a Millersville professor who teaches genetics, cell and molecular biology, used radioactive materials to teach in the past but understood they were not necessary anymore.

Radioactive materials could be used to visualize the inner workings and parts of a cell, Hepfer said. Now, professors can use fluorescence to visualize that process, she said. It takes a few extra steps but is ultimately poses less risk for the school.

Gone are the days of surprise visits from nuclear regulatory agencies and the careful control of university radioactive materials.  In are the days of safer research and educational and techniques.

“It’s a lot less work for everyone involved with it,” she said.

Leave a comment