In Memoriam: Thomas M. Gerusky, CHP


by Joel Lubenau, Bill Dornsife, Maggie Reilly, and Dave Allard

The health physics community lost a good friend and colleague when Thomas (Tom) M. Gerusky passed away on 5 December 2009 at age 74.

Tom, a native of Fort Edward, New York, had a varied, amazing career. After graduating from Union College in 1956, he attended the University of Rochester, New York, as an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Fellow. He joined the health physics staff at the Brookhaven National Laboratory graphite reactor and then moved to New Jersey to become radiation safety officer at E.R. Squibb & Sons. He left to head the fledgling Pennsylvania radiation control program, then a section in the Department of Health’s Division of Occupational Health.

There is a blessing (some say a curse), “May you have an interesting life.” It must have been bestowed on Tom when he came to Pennsylvania. He arrived on 6 September 1961, just five days after the Russians broke the moratorium on atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. In short order, he was on television as the state’s radiation protection expert to discuss fallout. By 1962, the state’s ancient single-channel gamma spectrograph had been replaced by a multichannel unit and additional equipment was secured to expand the state’s environmental radiation monitoring.

In 1962, the U.S. Public Health Service Bureau of Radiological Health informed the state about a former radium processing plant in a house in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. Tom conducted the first (and very preliminary) radiation survey. He returned to Harrisburg astonished at what he found; for example, 1 rad per hour over the drain opening of the basement laundry tub in a residence! The house, half of a duplex (the other half was later found also contaminated), was decontaminated in the 1960s, and the whole neighborhood eventually came under the Superfund in the 1980s.

In the 1960s, in response to repeated reports of accidental exposures to analytical x rays that led to serious injuries, Pennsylvania developed under Tom’s direction the first state regulations to improve safety for these users. Work continued in this area through the 1970s, and the Pennsylvania Bureau staff was featured in the Food and Drug Administration’s x-ray diffraction unit safety film “Double Edged Sword.”

Beginning in 1966, Tom worked with other state program directors to develop the constitution and bylaws for the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors (CRCPD) and to secure funding from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s National Center for Radiological Health to hold the first National Conference on Radiation Control. Elected temporary chairperson before the organization was formalized, he served until the annual meeting in 1970. In 1986, the CRCPD awarded him its Gerald S. Parker Award of Merit.

In 1967, three workers were accidentally exposed to life-threatening levels of ionizing radiation in the target area of a research accelerator in western Pennsylvania; whole-body doses were estimated at 600, 300, and 100 rad. The worker with the highest whole-body exposure received massive exposures to his extremities, eventually resulting in quadruple amputations. He lived because of a bone-marrow transplant from his twin brother! In response, all of the other accelerators in the state were surveyed. The survey findings led to regulations specific to accelerator safety, Pennsylvania becoming the first state to do so.

Around the same time frame, the Commonwealth was getting the keys to a circa-1955 research reactor/hot cell facility in the Quehanna Wild Area above State College. This site was used by various AEC contractors for research and development, e.g., nuclear powered aircraft engine research and, later, SNAP (systems nuclear auxiliary power) generators production using up to 6 MCi of 90Sr. That $30M cleanup and saga ended this past June.

The Pennsylvania radiological health program’s administrative structure was evolving under Tom’s leadership. Regional offices were opened. “Rad Health” was reorganized as an independent Office of Radiation Protection, then transferred to the newly created Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (DER) in the early 1970s as the “Bureau of Radiation Protection.” State licensing of radium began in the 1970s. With the increasing numbers of nuclear power plants under construction, the environmental radiation program, headed by Maggie Reilly, was expanded to include emergency planning and a new nuclear engineer, William (Bill) Dornsife, was added to the staff. The timing could not have been better.

Today, “TMI” is often quipped to mean “too much information.” In 1979, it meant the accident at the nuclear power plant operated by Metropolitan Edison Company on Three Mile Island, south of Harrisburg on the Susquehanna River. Tom Gerusky, Bill Dornsife, and Maggie Reilly were in the forefront of the state’s response. Twenty years after the accident, Tom was interviewed and asked for his recollections. He remembered getting a 7 a.m. telephone call from Bill Dornsife on 28 March 1979 about an event at TMI, with Bill noting… “It’s a biggie!” For the next 30 days, his administrative and technical staff (as well as much of DER and other agencies) worked 24/7. Tom recalled, “It became a team effort and continued to be a team effort through the cleanup.” A lesson learned was the value of the state Bureau of Radiation Protection at the site in the form of a nuclear engineer familiar with the facility and its operations. This soon led to the organization of the Division of Nuclear Safety, headed by Bill Dornsife.

In western Pennsylvania, the regional office there was busy with the remediation of the former radium and uranium production site in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. At a cost of $48 million of federal and state funds, 376,000 cubic yards of radium-contaminated material was emplaced in an engineered disposal cell.

By the beginning of the 1980s things seemed to be quieting down (relatively). But in December 1984, the Limerick nuclear power station reported a worker came to work contaminated. Investigation and analysis revealed the contamination was radon decay products traced back to his home, with some areas as high as 2,600 pCi/L of 222Rn. That was the beginning of a national recognition that indoor radon could be a problem. Again, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Radiation Protection had a lead role in assessing the problem and developing radiation protection recommendations.

In 1986, Pennsylvania was designated the host state for low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) disposal for the Appalachian States LLRW Compact. This required a new host state law. The bureau was tasked with the responsibility of drafting the new law and subsequent regulations, selecting a contractor, and managing that contract through an unprecedented open and demanding public process. Unfortunately, the disposal-facility siting process was suspended, but it kept Tom busy right up to retirement.

In 1992, Tom took advantage of an early retirement offer from the state but continued his health physics career, taking a position with the Department of Energy (DOE) environmental management program. There he worked for the Office of Southwestern Area Programs, tasked with leading the cleanup of nuclear materials for the Rocky Flats Colorado site, the Nevada Test Site (NTS), the Pantex Texas site, the Mound Ohio site, and the Pinellas Florida site. At the peak of activities, the office was responsible for an annual budget of $712 million. Tom developed policy and guidance for the treatment, storage, and disposal of waste and the environmental restoration of nuclear materials and sites.

Of special interest was Tom’s involvement with the residual contamination from Project Chariot, a Plowshare Program intended to use a nuclear explosive to create a harbor in northern Alaska. Although a nuclear device was never detonated, part of the project included a “tracer experiment” in which soils with radioactive materials from the NTS were deposited on land in a creek basin to study environmental transport. Its disposition became a significant trust and credibility issue for DOE. Tom became the DOE point man, making a number of trips to Alaska to ensure the local public and native Alaskans were informed and involved. Tom was highly thought of by DOE management.

In 1996, he retired once more, returning to Pennsylvania with his wife Patricia (Pat) to devote more time to their three children, Kathleen, Diane, and Michael, and in particular, their six grandchildren. A good athlete in his younger days, Tom was a smooth infielder for the Health Department team in the state employees fast-pitch softball league. Golf, however, was his lifelong passion and he played as often as possible; he was a fan of Arnold Palmer.

Blessed with a quick mind, Tom combined a highly technical education, practical experience, keen interpersonal skills, and sense of humor, with a unique understanding of government policy issues, into a wonderful combination that especially benefited Pennsylvania. He leaves behind one of the most comprehensive and respected state radiation control programs and an extraordinary, wide circle of friends and colleagues who will long remember his friendship and collegiality.

Requiescat in pace.

Joel Lubenau, Bill Dornsife, Maggie Reilly, and Dave Allard thank all of Tom’s friends who contributed to this remembrance.