Former U.S. Nuclear Weapons Sites May Be Radioactive Forever
Fair Use Statement
Source: ENS News
Former U.S. Nuclear Weapons Sites May Be
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
"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
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."
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
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
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
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
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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