Hanford Area Tests Find Plutonium in Fish, Mulberry Trees

June 27th, 2005 - by admin

Environmental News Service – 2005-06-27 17:06:56

SEATTLE, Washington (June 15, 2005) — Radioactive contamination in public areas surrounding the Hanford Nuclear Site in Richland, Washington is higher and more geographically widespread than previously thought, according to a report today from a government watchdog group and a chemical data firm.

The Government Accountability Project (GAP) and Boston Chemical Data Corporation issued a study that includes the first reports of plutonium in clams and fish in the Columbia River.

The report includes evidence that radiation levels in mulberry trees are higher than previously reported, and that strontium-90 has entered the ecosystem in high levels.

“This is hard evidence that points to past Department of Energy reports as being inadequate to protect the people of southwest Washington and northern Oregon,” said Tom Carpenter, GAP Nuclear Oversight Campaign Director.

The data collection and written report was completed by Marco Kaltofen, a registered professional engineer and environmental scientist with more than 19 years of experience in environmental investigations. He is the president of Boston Chemical Data, a corporation specializing in environmental investigations. The company is a member of the American Chemical Society and the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Samples were analyzed by Pace Analytical Services, Inc. of Madison, Pennsylvania and PASC/Maxxam of Burlington, Ontario, Canada.

The report, “Citizens Monitoring of Columbia River Radionuclides,” was peer reviewed by a retired Hanford scientist and reviewed by the Oregon Office of Energy.

Short-, Long-term Effects Unknown
In addition to plutonium being found for the first time in fish, increased levels of strontium, mercury, beryllium, uranium, and cesium were detected in aquatic creatures. Short and long term effects of this exposure remain unknown, the report states.

It was also found that mulberry leaves from the shoreline of the Columbia River at the Hanford perimeter are toxic, indicating that the mulberries themselves may be contaminated.

Strontium 90 levels in mulberry leaves in the area tested “are 875 times higher than levels found near Richland,” the report states. “At this level ingestion of 0.05 ounces per day of similarly-contaminated food would exceed EPA’s maximum allowable risk level of 4 mRem [millirem] per year.”

While the mulberry contamination shows “increased environmental risk via transfer of groundwater hazards into the biosphere,” Kaltofen writes that the uptake of strontium 90 by mulberry plants may offer a potential method of remediation for groundwater cleanup in the root zone of mulberry plants.

Hot Scat
Rodent scats from the test area showed greater than 13-fold elevated levels of strontium 90 compared to downstream areas, “showing that the material has entered the food chain for higher organisms,” according to the report.

An area of the Columbia River 20 miles upstream from the Hanford site showed high uranium readings, according to testing conducted for this report. “There is no explanation for this finding at this time, though possible explanations could include that the uranium comes from natural sources, from a source upstream of Hanford, or that contamination was either windblown or carried up the river by aquatic organisms,” the report states.

Possible windblown contamination was also measured in attic dust collected from homes in Richland. One sample showed levels of radiation six times higher than samples taken from attics in houses in other parts of the country.

The 586 square mile Hanford Site is located along the Columbia River in southeastern Washington state. A plutonium production complex with nine nuclear reactors and processing facilities, Hanford played a pivotal role in the nation’s defense for more than 40 years, beginning in the 1940s with the Manhattan Project.

Today, under the direction of the U.S. Department of Energy, Hanford is engaged in the world’s largest environmental cleanup project, “with a number of overlapping technical, political, regulatory, financial and cultural issues,” the Hanford Office of River Protection states.

50 Million Gallons of High-level Waste
The Hanford Site includes more than 50 million gallons of high-level liquid waste in 177 underground storage tanks, 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel, 12 tons of plutonium in various forms, about 25 million cubic feet of buried or stored solid waste, and about 270 billion gallons of groundwater contaminated above drinking water standards, spread out over about 80 square miles, more than 1,700 waste sites, and about 500 contaminated facilities, according to Hanford officials.

Included in this report is a reproduced graphic by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that shows the regions which were sampled for this study. “The Corps’ original graphic directs the reader to conclude that the Columbia River marks the end of the portions of the Hanford Reservation which are not yet cleaned of radionuclide wastes,” Kaltofen writes.

“One purpose of this study has been to determine whether the Columbia River truly represents the point where contamination ends,” he writes.

“In reviewing the test results, the data do not show that the river is a barrier or boundary to Hanford-related contamination. Instead,” Kaltofen writes, “the Columbia River is both a sink and a transport mechanism for these wastes.”

Decision makers from the Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology host the Fourth Annual “State of the Hanford Site” Public Meeting tonight at the Red Lion Hanford House in Richland.

Carpenter and Kaltofen attended that meeting to publicize the results of their study.

“The DOE does not place a priority on testing conditions outside of the Hanford perimeter in places where the public is allowed to fish and recreate. Our findings call for increased scrutiny on all levels regarding this area that is of grave public concern,” Carpenter said.

GAP is requesting Congressional funding for a Natural Resources Injury Assessment, independent of the Energy Department, to examine contamination around the Hanford site, said Carpenter.

“We need to find out what this data means for public health concerns immediately. At a time when the government is planning to import nearly double the amount of contaminated waste already at Hanford, it is crucial to have credible environmental data,” he said.

The report is available at GAP’s website at: www.whistleblower.org.

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