Scientists call for less destructive remediation at DOE sites

03/10/04

Scientists from Colorado State University, the University of Georgia and Argonne National Laboratory, writing in the journal Science, suggest that some of the policies for remediating slightly contaminated land on U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) sites be changed.

Some clean-up efforts have been based on the unrealistic scenario that people will live on the land for a lifetime, and derive their food and water solely from the contaminated site. This and other conservative assumptions often force remediation of even very low levels of radioactive contamination. Such remediation, according to the paper, can lead not only to unnecessary excavation, transport and reburial elsewhere of slightly contaminated soil, but does more environmental damage than had the contaminant remained in place, and does little to reduce public health risks.

According to the authors, one approach to solve the problem of "unreasonably restrictive cleanup criteria" would be Congressional action that ensures continuing Federal control of some contaminated DOE sites, and thereby eliminate the hypothetical "site resident" scenario. The authors maintain that continued Federal control would minimize public health risks, environmental damage and remediation costs.

In addition to these benefits, the scientists say preserving such sites as is would also provide significant benefits for wildlife, biodiversity and regional air and water quality. The scientists state that typically only 10 to 15 percent of the land is used for industrial purposes on the larger national DOE facilities. The remaining areas serve as natural buffers that have thrived from over 50-years of public isolation. These contiguous DOE lands contrast sharply with adjacent pubic lands that are highly fragmented by urbanization and farming practices.

Co-author Tom Hinton of the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, a research unit of UGA located on the Savannah River Site in South Carolina says, "Some of the DOE lands have developed into important environmental refuges, and are analogous to our National Parks in their large size and environmental value due to restricted public use. Portions of these lands, if remediated, would do no more than allow someone to check yet another box, and report to someone else that work has been accomplished. Actually, in some cases, the remediation will likely cause more damage to the environment, and do nothing to reduce public health risks."

Hinton, who works at Par Pond, a 2500-acre reservoir that was formerly used to cool two nuclear reactors at the Savannah River Site, says the reservoir is a good example of how cost reduction can be coordinated with environmental preservation. DOE, after partially draining the reservoir in 1991 to repair the dam, considered permanently draining it and excavating the contaminated sediments. Had Par been permanently drained, the required excavation of lake sediments would have cost about $4 billion, as well as contaminated the new disposal location. Instead, DOE considered alternative remediation strategies and refilled the reservoir at a cost of about $12 million, less than 1% of the original plan. The financial gain was not the only benefit. Refilling the reservoir isolated the low-level contamination and preserved a healthy, thriving ecosystem whose stable water levels are rare in other reservoirs that are intensively managed for recreational, flood and energy concerns.

The scientists stress that they endorse and support remediation, especially for wastes that have the potential to impact the public. However, they advocate that scientifically sound risk assessments, based on realistic land-use scenarios, be used to guide cleanup decisions. Doing so, they say, will protect public health, spare valuable ecosystems from unnecessary damage and reduce remediation costs.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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