Remembering Tony Nero, 1942 - 2023

February 26, 2024

Tony Nero, an early member of the then newly-formed Energy and Environment Division at Berkeley Lab, died on October 13, 2023 in Rehoboth Beach, DE, at age 81.  At the time of his retirement in 1994, Nero was a Senior Staff Scientist and Deputy Program Leader for the Indoor Air Program.  He was a graduate of Archmere Academy (Claymont, DE), received a bachelor's degree in physics from Fordham University in 1964 and did his PhD work in nuclear physics at Stanford, graduating in 1970.  Before coming to Berkeley Lab, Nero was a nuclear physics postdoc at Cal Tech and was on the physics faculty at Princeton.

His career at Berkeley Lab started in 1975 with a project to evaluate methods to measure plutonium in the environment.  He became aware of newly reported measurements of radioactive radon gas in houses and realized that exposures to indoor radon (more specifically to alpha-particle emitting radon decay products) could be an important source of radiation exposures to the general population.  An early focus of the work done by the Radon research group, led by Nero, was understanding the source(s) of radon in houses - especially houses with elevated concentrations.  An important outcome of that research (along with results from other investigators) was the understanding that buildings can draw radon-laden gas from the surrounding soils via the same mechanism driving air infiltration.  Nero became interested in the question of what the distribution of indoor radon concentrations looked like, and in particular, how many houses in that distribution had indoor concentrations high enough to represent a significant lifetime radiation exposure.  His group assembled data from the then existing - mostly localized - radon surveys.  This work, along with the results from the U.S. EPA nationwide indoor radon survey conducted a few years later, convinced Nero and his group to look for regions of the country likely to contain houses with elevated indoor radon concentrations (rather than randomly testing houses in the hopes of finding the small fraction with elevated indoor radon concentrations).  As a result, the High Radon project evaluated the combination of factors - radium concentrations in local soils, soil characteristics, residential building types and typical weather conditions - for large regions of the country and created a predictive tool for estimating the likelihood of finding houses with elevated radon concentrations at a regional scale.  Overall, the research done by the Radon research group improved the scientific understanding of how radon enters buildings, where the buildings with elevated indoor concentrations might be located and how such buildings can be mitigated.  Nero was passionate about ensuring that the various state and federal agencies involved in solving the radon 'question' did so with the best available science.

Nero's scientific interests weren't confined to radon.  In 1978-79 he took a leave from Berkeley Lab to work with the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in Washington DC (the functions of ACDA were merged into the US State Department in 1999).  That experience motivated a life-long interest in nuclear arms control.  He also wrote 'A Guidebook to Nuclear Reactors' (UC Press 1979) and wrote several popular press articles on radon and on indoor air quality, along with numerous scientific papers on nuclear physics, buildings, indoor air quality and radon.  He co-edited, with Bill Nazaroff, the first major scientific book on 'Radon and Its Decay Products in Indoor Air' (Wiley 1988).  In 1989, Nero received the Leo Szilard Lectureship Award from the American Physical Society, given for "outstanding research on a broad spectrum of problems involving physics, the environment and public health, including the identification of radon as a major health hazard, the study of indoor air pollution, and work on nuclear proliferation and reactor safety" (other Berkeley Lab recipients of the Szilard award include Art Rosenfeld in 1986, Roger Falcone in 2005, Ashok Gadgil in 2015, and Robert Budnitz in 2024).

Nero was born April 11, 1942 in Seaford, Delaware, the eldest of five children and grew up in rural southern Delaware.  While in Berkeley, he became a sailor and the host of many potluck dinners at his Berkeley home.  He also had a cabin in the mountains near Taos, NM, a jumping off point for hiking in the local mountains.  After spending more than 40 years in Berkeley, he moved back to Rehoboth Beach, DE, in 2020 to be closer to his family.  He is survived by his youngest brother, Dan and his sister Annette (Nero) Stellhorn, along with several nephews, nieces and friends around the country.