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Former U.S. Nuclear Weapons Sites May Be Radioactive Forever
Fair Use Statement

Source: ENS News

Former U.S. Nuclear Weapons Sites May Be Radioactive Forever

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, August 8, 2000 (ENS) - The majority of America’s current and former nuclear weapons sites will never be cleaned up enough to allow public use of the land, says a new report by the National Research Council. The study, released Monday, also warns that plans for guarding permanently contaminated sites are inadequate.

"At many sites, radiological and nonradiological hazardous wastes will remain, posing risks to humans and the environment for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years," the report says. "Complete elimination of unacceptable risks to humans and the environment will not be achieved, now or in the foreseeable future."

Almost 150 sites around the country are contaminated, a result of weapons production for the nuclear arms race. DOE has concluded that even after planned cleanup activities are completed - or found to be infeasible - at these so-called "legacy" waste sites, 109 of them will never be clean enough for unrestricted use.

The National Research Council report, commissioned by the Department of Energy (DOE), says that the only option may be to declare some of America’s weapons sites as permanently off limits to public use. But the report also warns that the federal government lacks the money, technology and techniques to keep radioactive and chemical contaminants from spreading outside these areas, as they already have in some cases.

The DOE recently established the Office of Long-Term Stewardship to protect indefinitely the people and environment surrounding these sites - located in 27 states, Puerto Rico and territorial islands in the Pacific.

Details of the DOE’s stewardship plans have yet to be specified, adequate funding has not been assured, and there is no convincing evidence that institutional controls - such as surveillance of radioactive and other hazardous wastes left at sites, security fences and deeds restricting land use - will prove reliable over the long run, the report warns.

"Many weaknesses in institutional controls and other stewardship activities arise from institutional fallabilities," said Thomas Leschine, associate professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, and chair of the National Research Council committee that wrote the report. "Understanding this and developing a highly reliable organizational model that anticipates failure while taking advantage of new opportunities for further remediation and isolation of contaminants remains a significant challenge for DOE."

"Moreover," added committee vice chair Mary English, research leader at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, "DOE must undertake long term institutional management of residually contaminated sites with the expectation that plans developed today will need to be periodically revisited."

DOE should begin immediately to plan for a broader management framework that balances reduction of existing contaminants, physical isolation of wastes, and caretaking activities such as monitoring of waste migration offsite, changes in the landscape, and human activity around the site, the committee advises.

Currently, DOE defines stewardship as something that begins after "closure" of a site when cleanup is considered to be finished. The National Research Council committee said stewardship should ideally begin while remediation strategies are still being formulated.

The Office of Long-Term Stewardship has just begun its planning, and is required by law to report to Congress on DOE's responsibilities by October 1.

Because the long term behavior of contaminants in the environment is unpredictable and physical barriers may break down, the committee is urging DOE to develop its stewardship plans under the assumption that "contaminant isolation eventually will fail." A precautionary approach should be adopted in which contaminant cleanup is emphasized to address risks to human health and the environment, the report says.

No single formula exists for successful management of these sites, and decisions are likely to be made under conditions of considerable uncertainty, the reports notes. The best long term management strategy overall appears to be one which avoids eliminating future options, takes contingencies into account, and "considers seriously the prospects of failure."

Today's scientific knowledge and institutional capabilities do not provide much confidence that containment of permanently contaminated sites will function as expected indefinitely, the report says.

DOE officials view the long term stewardship efforts that they have proposed so far - which are likely to rely heavily on surveillance, maintenance and record keeping - as relatively inexpensive compared with the cost for initial cleanups. But real costs cannot be estimated with any confidence since failures are likely to occur, the committee reports. The goal of long term institutional management should be to anticipate such failures and minimize the costs and risks associated with them.

Ongoing surveillance and environmental monitoring need to go beyond the boundaries of a site, the committee's report emphasizes. For example, DOE has begun annual checking of building permit requests around the Oak Ridge Reservation site in Tennessee after a nearby golf course attempted to use water from a contaminated aquifer.

In addition, proposed land use changes inside a site, such as the reuse of the former facility for a new manufacturing purpose, need to be carefully considered, the report warns.

"DOE should frankly acknowledge gaps in its technical capabilities and organizational deficiencies when explaining long-term institutional management plans to the public," the National Research Council committee said. In addition, the scientific basis for decisions should be clear, and the public should be actively engaged in the development of stewardship plans.

The full report can be ordered from:

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Michael R. Meuser
Data Research & GIS Specialist is an independent firm specializing in GIS project development and data research. We created the first U.S. based interactive toxic chemical facility maps on the internet in 1996 and we have been online ever since. Learn more about us and our services.

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