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Woodbridge man not a typical retiree

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Posted: Friday, November 26, 2004 10:00 pm

In Livermore, he helped invent a model for gauging radiation exposure. In Russia, he rumbled across the countryside to check people for contamination after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.

He has helped review the health claims of workers exposed to radiation, including those stationed at the Nevada nuclear weapons testing site.

Richard Griffith is a soft-spoken fellow who lives in Woodbridge and is active in the Sons in Retirement and Lodi Elks Lodge.

Yet he is no typical retiree.

Griffith is a globe-trotting radiological researcher and troubleshooter. He has worked with eminent scientists and scholars and he continues his career as a consultant to the federal government.

Richard Hanner

After graduation from Northwestern University with a degree in physics (he later earned a master's in radiation biology from UC Berkeley) Griffith joined the U.S. Air Force and worked in the military's nuclear weapons program. His military stint took him from New Mexico research and development assignments to tests in the South Pacific.

In civilian life, he joined the staff at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. His assignment centered on ways to check the exposure of workers to radiation.

I recently had the chance to talk with Griffith about his remarkable career. I also asked for his observations on topics from nuclear reactors to weapons of mass destruction. Here are some highlights:

• At Livermore, Griffith and a team developed a "phantom," a synthetic dummy that could roughly simulate the human body's exposure to radiation. Though other, cruder, dummies existed, Griffith's went further. They found or developed materials to mimic the way human tissue, bone and cartilage react to radiation. The phantom was later adopted for wider use in both government and industry.

• In the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, many Russians were concerned about excessive radiation exposure and skeptical about the work then being done to protect them. Griffith, then working for the International Atomic Energy Agency, went on a special assignment to double-check the findings of the Russian authorities. He traveled the countryside in a van with Russian assistants, using a version of the phantom to test civilians. His findings: "The Russians had done a reasonably good job of assessing the exposure."

• At the international agency, Griffith worked under Hans Blix, who would later serve as chief United Nations weapons inspector. Griffith respects Blix, whom he described as "a very honest person. I don't feel he has any hidden agenda."

• President Bush started the war on Iraq despite requests by Blix for more time to search for weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs. No such weapons have yet been found. "There was a sense of arrogance by the administration," Griffith said. "I don't know if I can ultimately rebuke them for going in there, but they did have a sense of arrogance."

• Griffith said it is conceivable that WMDs did exist in Iraq but that they may have been moved before the U.S. invasion. "There has been speculation they might have been moved to Syria," he said.

• Security experts have warned about terrorists detonating a suitcase-sized nuclear weapon in the U.S. What does Griffith think? "It's possible, but I would question whether the terrorists have the infrastructural framework needed to build that type of device. I also think there are simpler, more feasible ways for the terrorists to carry out their goals, such as the use of aircraft."

• Griffith believes strides have been made in recent years in the development of nuclear power. "Eventually, I think we'll get back in the game. We cut some corners in the early years … now there is a higher level of reliability. With our resources dwindling over time, nuclear power holds real promise."

• Activists have opposed the use of Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as a long-term repository for nuclear waste. "It seems to me the technical expertise and resources devoted to this are substantial; I can't share the concerns some people have about that project," Griffith said.

Griffith left Livermore in 1989 and the international agency in 1998.

He serves now as the publications director of the International Radiation Protection Association. He continues working, part-time, as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Energy. He helps assess the radiation exposure of workers who have filed health-related claims.

So for the foreseeable future, Griffith will continue his double life, acting as both a quiet Woodbridge semi-retiree as well as a sought-after technical investigator with international credentials.

Richard Hanner is the Lodi News-Sentinel's editor. He can be reached at (209) 369-7035; at 125 N. Church St., or via e-mail.

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