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Tritium in Tucson, Wastes Worldwide

Like Agnes Engel of Canonsburg, Tom Charlie downriver from Church Rock, and the Haag and Mixon families near Rocky Flats, radiation has affected the life of Rita Linzy. A mother of two and a lifelong resident of Tucson, Linzy knew little of the intricacies of atomic power until one of her near neighbors accidentally leaked radioactive tritium, introducing it into food being served to forty thousand local schoolchildren. It happened in the summer of 1979. During the incident--which Linzy called "our Three Mile Island"--her hair fell out and scores of her neighbors began wondering if their health had been damaged.[1]

The source of the contamination was American Atomics, a ten-million-dollar-a-year operation employing some two hundred workers in midtown Tucson. The company made a business of buying tritium from the federal weapons program and inserting it into thin glass slivers used in digital watches. The tritium makes the slivers glow without electricity.

As it functioned quietly in Tucson, American Atomics was just one of seventeen thousand medical, academic, industrial, and military organizations licensed to handle radioactive isotopes in the United States. Those licensees range in size from megacorporations like General Electric and Westinghouse to small colleges and hospitals that handle tiny quantities of isotopes for research and medical purposes.[2] Literally hundreds of millions of items containing some quantity of radioactivity are produced in the U.S. each year, including luminous timepieces, static eliminators, false teeth, welding rods, eyeglasses, electron tubes, fluorescent lamp starters, ceramic tableware, and some smoke detectors.[3]

Many of the factories that produce these items are legally permitted to release large quantities of radiation in the course of normal operations. Cobalt 60 fabrication plants, for example, are allowed to expose the public to twenty times more radiation than a commercial reactor.[4]

Many of the small radiation by-product plants are also located in thickly populated areas. American Atomics sat just a few hundred yards from a trailer park, a church, a day-care center, a potato chip warehouse, several homes, and the central kitchen for the Tucson public school system. The plant regularly leaked large quantities of tritium gas into the atmosphere--285,000 curies of it in 1978 alone, according to company records. In September of that year a maintenance worker opened the wrong valve and sent into the Tucson air a single "puff" of twenty-one thousand curies, a sizable dose. The public was not informed.[5]

But tritium can be deadly. A radioactive form of hydrogen, it has a half-life of twelve years. Because it gives off relatively small amounts of beta (electron) radiation, it is considered less dangerous than many other isotopes. However tritium behaves chemically and biochemically like ordinary hydrogen. When ingested, it can incorporate itself into all forms of body cells, including those of the reproductive system. Researchers theorize that because of its ability to act like regular water, tritium can incorporate with the DNA in living cells, multiplying the prospects for damage leading to genetic mutations and cancer[6]

1. Arizona Daily Star, June 3, 1979.

2. Clair Miles, NRC, interview, February 1981.

3. Buckley, et al., Environmental Assessment of Consumer Products Containing Radioactive Material, NUREG CR-1755 (Washington, D.C.: NRC).

4. 10 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 40. As of December 1979 the public exposure limit at "nuclear fuel cycle" facilities such as power reactors and fabrication plants was set at twenty-five mrem. But the limits at "by-product" facilities, waste dumps, weapons plants, and certain industrial facilities was set twenty times higher--at five hundred millirem.

5. Arizona Daily Star, April 15, 1979, and January 4, 1981.

6. H. Kasche, et al., "Dose Estimations for Tritium and C-14 Released in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle--A Biological and Radiobiological Evaluation," University of Bremen, SAIU, available through Environmental Policy Center.

Tritium in the Cake

In addition to tritium, at least one worker at American Atomics was also contaminated with "hot" oil. Other workers charged the company regularly falsified quality-control data and deliberately mislabeled radioactive cargo to avoid air-freight restrictions. In all, the company seemed a tragic throwback to the days of radium-dial painting--a practice tritium slivers made obsolete.[7]

Finally, American Atomics employee Elaine Hunter blasted the company in a letter printed in the local Arizona Daily Star. She was quitting work at American Atomics, she said, "not in fear of radioactivity," but "in disgust and anger that those greedy men were making a fast buck while jeopardizing the physical and emotional well-being of those involved with the fabrication of their product.[8]

Meanwhile plant neighbors complained of emission alarms that rang constantly. In August of 1978 the Arizona Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) inspected American Atomics and warned of large losses of tritium because of sloppy handling. The findings were delivered to AAEC director Donald C. Gilbert, who let them sit on his desk for seven months. The reason for the inaction, Gilbert later told Daily Star reporter Jane Kay, was that he had been assured by Harry H. Dooley, Jr., that the situation was being corrected. Dooley was an AAEC commissioner--and a vice-president of American Atomics. The obvious conflict of interest apparently bothered no one at the AAEC. Only when Director Gilbert was fired in March of 1979 during a commission shake-up did the report find its way to the public.[9]

Four days after Gilbert's departure AAEC inspector Lynn FitzRandolph was sent to American Atomics. He cited the company with four counts of violating state regulations, and recommended that the plant be closed. The company was "out of control," FitzRandolph later explained. "I came away with pretty good ideas the tritium was going up the stacks and into the sewer." FitzRandolph was scorned at the time by some of his scientific peers, who told him his demands for strict enforcement were "ridiculous."[10]

But in the spring of 1979 the Star also reported the company had been dumping radioactive liquid "down the drain," directly into the city sewer system, without filtration or monitoring. American Atomics replied that the total radioactive content was "very low."[11]

But routine tests in early June at the Tucson school system's central kitchen, near the plant, found food with radiation counts 2.5 times above permissible levels. The kitchen regularly fed approximately forty thousand students. Water in cake that had been served to twenty-eight thousand pupils contained fifty-six thousand picocuries per liter; federal standards allowed only twenty-thousand picocuries. Vegetation outside the kitchen tested at levels thirty-six times the legal limit. Radiation, said acting AAEC director Kenneth Geiser, was "in the humidity in the air. Everywhere. And all the time. Cake or bread left on a table gets kind of soggy; it picks up moisture like a sponge--and tritium with it."

Tucson was shocked. The school board was soon forced to bury seventeen thousand cases of food. In all some $300,000 in perishables and $90,000 in canned goods were destroyed, at taxpayer expense.[12]

Meanwhile urine tests of people living near the plant revealed at least six cases of abnormal levels of tritium. Six-year-old Tony Bruckmeier tested at 89,100 picocuries per liter, a level termed by Gail Schmidt of the Bureau of Radiation Health as "small but not negligible."[13] Though federal officials emphasized the levels were not likely to be harmful, local residents had their doubts. Mrs. Gloria Mendoza, who had lived in the neighborhood more than a quarter century, showed levels of 71,700 picocuries per liter. The AAEC, she told the Star, "told us to see our own physicians or call the Health Department. They told me it was nothing to be alarmed about. But I've had blisters inside my mouth, and the doctors say they haven't seen anything like it since World War II. It's all cracked and constantly purplish red."

"They told us they were making little components," said Joe Valenzuela, a grandfather and amateur gardener who lived in the same house for thirty years. "They never said they were using radioactive materials. No one knew. . . . The prevailing winds are south to southwest, and we're right here," he continued. "We have no defense against this. The employees work eight hours and wear coats and gloves. But my wife is here 24 hours. What about her kitchen?"[14]

When news of the contamination became public, parents began forbidding their children to come into the area--even to visit grandparents. Neighbors began leaving fruit on trees they had tended for years rather than risk eating radiation. Backyard swimming pools were also abandoned when they showed high tritium levels--one with 413,000 picocuries per liter, twenty times EPA drinking standards. But American Atomics continued to manufacture tritium slivers. "The safeguards are there," said company president Peter J. Biehl. "The performance here is super, and we're within the established standards. If we were a safety hazard we'd shut down."[15]

They did. Faced with the possibility of an official hearing, American Atomics surrendered its licenses to handle radioactive materials. The Tucson City Council and Pima County had already voted to deny the company permission to relocate within their borders.

The company then abandoned its factory, leaving behind tritium and other contaminated wastes. A break-in, fear of fire, and other problems at the deserted site brought on still more anger and anxiety in Tucson. Finally, on September 26, Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt used emergency powers to seize the leftover tritium. The American Atomics experience, he said, had been "a complete failure of regulation."[16] On September 28, six National Guardsmen packed several hundred thousand tiny glass vials filled with tritium into thirty-eight barrels and trucked them to a former military depot at Flagstaff, where they were buried.

The experience left bitter memories in Tucson--and more. During the height of the crisis health officials assured local residents any ingested tritium would be eliminated from the human system in three to six months.

But in the spring of 1981 a study of fifty former American Atomics workers showed a majority with tritium levels still ten times above normal. The ex-employees had not been exposed to high tritium concentrations for at least twenty-one months.

Dr. Michael Gray of the Arizona Center for Occupational Safety and Health reported that a survey showed a "long residency period in the system of very low concentrations of tritium." Some of the workers, he said, produced urine samples containing tritium levels twenty times above normal. Rates of decay found in the survey suggested that tritium "can reside in the body" not just for the three to six months promised during the crisis, but "for up to ten years."[17]

That was bad news for the people of Tucson, who banned all radioactive production from their town in the wake of the scandal. "It never entered my mind that they would even think of putting a plant in this area when they knew it could contaminate a neighborhood," Rita Linzy told the Star at the height of the American Atomics crisis. She was then suffering from an undiagnosed ailment that left her feeling tired and feverish, and made her hair fall out. Her dog's hair was also falling out.

When we interviewed her eighteen months later, she told us she was feeling better, and that there was no firm evidence that her ailment--or her dog's--had been caused by radiation. But she was still worried. "I don't know if the illness was from the plant or not," she said. "If any damage was done, we won't know for twenty years. And there won't be anything we can do about it."[18]

7. Arizona Daily Star, July 18 and July 20, 1979.

8. Elaine Hunter, letter to the Arizona Daily Star, April 15, 1979.

9. Jane Kay, Arizona Daily Star, interview, January 1981.

10. Arizona Daily Star, February 11, 1980, and October 4, 1979.

11. Ibid., May 14, 1979.

12. Ibid., June 2, 1979; and Associated Press, October 25, 1979, as seen in New York Times, October 26, 1979.

13. Gail Schmidt, interview, June 1981. Dr. Schmidt told us that EPA standards for tritium in drinking water are twenty thousand picocuries per liter, constant intake of which could result in a whole-body dose of four millirems a year. The NRC standard for tritium in urine among nuclear workers is twenty-eight million picocuries per liter. Schmidt calculated that if the tritium levels in Tony Bruckmeier's urine had come from a single exposure, they would reflect a whole-body dose of roughly 0.37 millirems. If they reflected a whole year's constant exposure, Schmidt estimated the dose at roughly 8.9 millirems. In a June 1981 interview Dr. Alan Moghissi, principal adviser for Radiation and Hazardous Materials to the EPA's Office of Research and Development, told us that if he were the parent of a child who had suffered such exposure, he "would not be concerned." Moghissi, who worked extensively on the Arizona Atomics case, said the highest environmental doses were estimated at ten to seventeen millirems. "There is no such thing as zero danger," he told us. But Tony Bruckmeier's apparent dose was "comparable to what one would receive on a round-trip air flight from New York to Tucson."

14. Arizona Daily Star, June 3, 1979, and June 12, 1979.

15. Ibid., April 15, 1979.

16. U.S. Congress, House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Agreement States Program, 96th Cong., 1st sess., July 19, 1977, pp. 2-6 (hereafter cited as Agreement States Hearings).

17. Arizona Daily Star, March 5, 1981.

18. Ibid., June 3, 1979, and Rita Linzy, interview, January 1981.

A World of Waste

The closing of American Atomics in Tucson did not end the problems it created. The leftover tritium had to be trucked to a burial ground. Though no accidents marred that particular trip, other shipments haven't fared so well. Every year the NRC and Department of Transportation (DOT) log several thousand movements of radioactive wastes, fuel, ore, medical isotopes, and the like over American roads, rails, waterways, and airways. In 1979, when the American Atomics tritium was moved to Flagstaff, 122 nuclear-related transport accidents were reported, including at least seventeen that resulted in environmental contamination.[19]

How many more went unreported remains unknown. But in November of 1980 the GAO warned that with DOT's "limited staffing and funding resources" the agency could not "determine the extent of problems involved in transporting hazardous materials" let alone solve them.[20]

The problems seemed epidemic, from faulty vehicles and untrained drivers to inadequate safeguards and sloppy packaging. Nevada's governor Robert List, for example, complained to a 1979 House Interior Committee hearing that "simple tape" had been used to seal a metal container carrying liquid wastes from a Michigan reactor into his state. The tape had been painted over to conceal the problem. But the cask was dripping and may have contaminated roads for more than a thousand miles. Three months earlier hospital wastes being trucked into Nevada caught fire.[21]

These incidents and scores like it prompted List and the governors of South Carolina and Washington to announce they would accept no more low-level wastes into their states after 1987. Numerous municipal governments--such as New York City--have banned the transport of radioactive material through their streets altogether.

No such problems existed for the Tucson tritium, which got to its burial ground under the aegis of a state emergency. But once there it became part of a much bigger problem--the disposal of atomic wastes, generally considered the Achilles' heel of the nuclear industry. The issue has become so hard-fought that in 1980 the voters of Washington State overwhelmingly approved a referendum to ban all further shipments of radioactive waste into the state. And Ronald Reagan--whose campaign platform included the strengthening of states' rights--instructed the federal Justice Department to overturn the act and force the state to continue accepting radioactive wastes against its will.[22] In June 1981 the federal district court in Seattle ruled against the state.

What has people upset is an enormous and uncertain legacy of permanently toxic and potentially explosive garbage. It comes from two sources--the military and the commercial uses of the atom--and it breaks into three categories--low-level, transuranics, and high-level waste.

For three decades the weapons program was the principal source of radioactive waste. With their plutonium-producing reactors, uranium enrichment plants, bomb fabrication complexes, and research laboratories, the armed forces by the late 1970s were producing some seventy million gallons of high-level wastes per year, plus thousands of cubic yards of less toxic low-level solid trash. The military also had 460 buildings and sites in need of decontamination and, in many cases, burial.[23]

Overall, as the 1980s began, the weapons program remained the leading producer of radioactive wastes by volume. But because of the extreme intensity of the poisons in a power reactor core, the commercial nuclear program by 1977 had outstripped the military program in its production of nuclear wastes by quantity of radioactivity.[24] Both programs continue to produce both high-level and low-level wastes.

The latter are low in radioactivity, low-emitter items like tools and clothing contaminated during site work, test tubes, detergents, worn-out machinery, experimental carcasses, and the like. One 1979 DOE estimate of the total quantity of this material put it in the range of 2.5 million cubic meters, with 10 million cubic meters predicted by the year 2000. Much of it so far has been stored in metal barrels or dumped in trenches.[25]

In March of 1981, under the Reagan administration, the NRC "solved" part of the low-level storage problem by allowing hospitals and research institutions to simply burn their wastes in the open air or dump them down drains leading into public sewer systems. Research labs and hospitals regularly produce 200,000 to 400,000 gallons of liquid wastes each year, plus large numbers of contaminated animal carcasses and soiled equipment. Their radiation will now go directly into the environment.[26]

This method of waste disposal is not new. Government figures indicate that in the 1940s and 1950s the AEC dumped at least fifty thousand barrels of wastes directly into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the Gulf of Mexico. Government officials claimed that the barrels were dumped far from heavily populated areas on shore, and that only a small number leaked once they hit bottom.

But testimony from military personnel and employees involved in the actual operations indicate many thousands of additional barrels may have been involved.[27] And a 1981 investigative report by Mother Jones magazine indicated a very high percentage of those barrels were leaking. In fact some of them had actually been shot with holes by ships' captains when the barrels were slow to sink after being thrown overboard.[28] Many of the barrels were also much closer to shore and in shallower water than the government said. And as early as 1975 two EPA scientists in a deep-diving submarine reported traces of radioactive cesium leaking from containers dumped 120 miles off Ocean City, Maryland. Fish caught at another site two hundred miles out showed significant levels of radioactive americium in their bodies.[29]

Divers at a dump site off San Francisco have found abnormal giant sponges similar to ones growing near nuclear outtake pipes at reactors in Japan. And a suppressed EPA report confirmed that small marine life was feeding near numerous broken barrels; they could, in turn, introduce the radioactivity into the ocean food chain.

The ocean dumping program was not limited to low-level wastes. In 1958 the military threw an entire atomic reactor vessel, containing thirty thousand curies of radiation, into the Atlantic. It later tried to retrieve the vessel, but could not find it.[30]

Both liquid and solid high-level wastes can be laced with plutonium, thorium, radium, strontium, cesium, and a broad spectrum of other dangerous isotopes. Many of them have long half-lives, are extremely toxic, and, in some cases, explosive. With its half-life of 24,800 years, plutonium must be stored to virtual perfection for 248,000 years before scientists estimate it may be safe to handle. Thorium, with its eighty-thousand-year half-life, will remain deadly even longer.

In both cases ingestion of even minuscule particles can result in cancer. And the storage of plutonium has become an even more pressing issue because it can be made into bombs. Public fears that it might be stolen and used by small nations or terrorist groups are well justified, and have already prompted one major international incidence of extreme violence--the June 1981 Israeli raid on an Iraqi reactor. More--possibly worse--events of its kind seem inevitable.[31]

Thus far the U.S. military has stored the worst of its wastes at the Hanford, INEL, and Savannah River sites. At each location there have been disastrous contaminations of land and water. At Hanford at least 430,000 gallons of caustic liquids have leaked from storage tanks, including 115,000 gallons over a single 50-day period in 1973. Though the wastes must be safely contained for millennia, numerous tanks at Hanford under ten years of age have leaked profusely.[32]

When a Hanford safety engineer named Stephen Stalos complained about the problem to his superiors, he was told no public report would be made because "such an admission would give bad publicity to the nuclear industry." Another Hanford worker, Allen Wegle, warned in a U.S. Senate hearing that radioactive liquids leaked at Hanford in the 1950s are "just reaching the Columbia River at this time."[33] Though the speed with which Hanford contaminants are moving toward the Columbia is a matter of some dispute, their long half-lives and the quantities poured into the soil make their arrival there at some point in the future a virtual certainty.

And if the Columbia is contaminated, the hundreds of thousands who live along it and who eat fish from it will be put at serious risk. Those who depend on the huge Snake River Aquifer, which has already been contaminated with wastes from Idaho's Nuclear Engineering Laboratory, have similar worries.[34]

Residents on and near the Savannah River, which has been contaminated by the government's huge weapons and waste storage facility at Aiken, South Carolina, are in the same position. Wastes there are stored within thirty feet of a huge aquifer that underlies parts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. One hundred eleven waste accidents have been reported by the DOE at Aiken, and approximately one thousand square miles around the plant have been contaminated by plutonium from a weapons production reactor and reprocessing plants there.[35]

At Hanford dust made radioactive by wastes dumped on the ground has been carried by windstorms into the surrounding desert. Traces of some contaminants have been found at a nearby schoolyard. Contamination has also been detected in mice, snakes, wasp's nests, and coyote trapped nearby.[36]

Leaks at Maxey Flats, Kentucky, have also proved devastating. Maxey Flats handles "transuranic" wastes--materials contaminated by elements such as plutonium, which have a higher atomic weight than uranium. When it was first built, government officials assured local residents that the Maxey Flats burial ground would retain all plutonium and other dangerous isotopes on site forever. But in just ten years detectable quantities of the two hundred pounds of plutonium there had moved hundreds of meters. Tritium was found in streams three miles away. The site was closed in the 1970s.[37]

So far numerous experiments with various means of disposing of rad-wastes have been tried--all without proven success. In the wake of such failure the official focus has been on downplaying the potential dangers--especially in the case of commercial reactor waste. A standard industry claim has been that the fuel for operating a one-thousand-megawatt reactor for a year comes to about two cubic meters. As a public-relations gimmick various utilities have handed out small plastic pellets, which they compare to the size of each person's yearly share.

But the comparisons are deceptive.

First, they ignore the fact that mining and milling the fuel for one average reactor for one year will create roughly 180,000 metric tons of uranium mill tailings--of the type that poured out of the Church Rock dam, and that are sitting in piles throughout the West. According to the NRC's Ross Scarano 1.6 metric tons of tailings occupy a cubic meter of space. Those 180,000 metric tons of tailings created to fuel a reactor for a year will occupy roughly 100,000 cubic meters of space--a long way from the two cubic meters of "rear-end" wastes advertised by the industry.[38]

As for those smaller volumes of "rear-end" wastes that come directly from the reactors, they make up in intensity what they may lack in size.

Longtime nuclear advocate Bernard Cohen, of Pittsburgh, argues that those yearly rear-end wastes "would fit comfortably under a dining-room table."[39]

But anyone eating at that table would have a hard time walking away. The heat and radiation generated by spent fuel demand that it be diluted and spaced apart to avoid a chain reaction. Dr. Marvin Resnikoff of the State University of New York at Buffalo estimates those "two cubic meters" would require ten thousand times that much space for safe storage. Any "dining-room table" they'd fit under would need a top the size of a football field and legs ten feet high.[40]

At West Valley, New York, an attempt at commercial reprocessing of spent fuel has left a radioactive legacy that may eventually cost state and federal taxpayers $1.5 billion to clean up--if it can be done at all.[41] In addition to trenches of high-level wastes a "toxic stew" of 560,000 gallons of cesium, strontium, plutonium, and other isotopes is sitting in a leaking tank there. At one point so much potent residue settled out of the liquid that some experts feared it might eat through the vat, releasing large quantities of high-level radiation.[42]

Nearby farmers may already have felt the effects of West Valley's operations. Floyd Zell, who keeps 130 Holsteins four miles east of the plant, told us that while it operated, his dairy herd experienced breeding problems, and that a number of calves were born with deformities he has not seen since the plant shut in 1972. Several he described as "grotesque monsters," including one born blind with its front legs bowed "like it was straddling a barrel." Another came into the world with its tail protruding from the midback, directly opposite the umbilical cord. "Underneath the tail," said Zell, "was the rectum and vulva. Then, down the spinal column, its two hind legs were real miniature, about half the size they should have been. They were tucked way under."[43]

Emil Zimmerman, who keeps seventy Brown Swiss cows one mile east of the plant, charged that fallout from West Valley "took twenty-five hundred dollars per year out of my pocket" while the plant operated. A father of three who has worked the same farm since 1943, Zimmerman said that when West Valley began operations, he was getting a 45 to 50 percent "first service" success rate with artificial insemination of his cows. The last three years it operated the rate dropped to 35 percent, but then jumped to 65 to 75 percent after it shut. Zimmerman said his cows' abortion rate doubled after the plant opened, then dropped back to normal after it closed. He also blamed the reprocessing center for the birth of several "monster calves," some abnormally large, some whose bones "literally fell apart." The problems peaked in the early 1970s, he said, then declined to the point where, in the last few years, he has had no abnormal births at all.[44]

Nuclear Fuel Services, a subsidiary of Getty Oil, owns West Valley. It refuses to accept the burden of cleaning it up. In the fall of 1980 President Carter signed a bill authorizing $300 million in tax money to begin the job. It probably will not be enough.

Other commercial reprocessing and storage sites at Morris, Illinois, and Barnwell, South Carolina, have also been costly failures. And without reprocessing of fuel, or proven storage sites, atomic wastes are backing up at reactor sites all across the U.S. As a result scores of spent fuel assemblies are now being stored in "swimming pools" at the plants. In some cases operators have obtained permission to stack in three times as many fuel assemblies as the pools were originally designed to hold. By inserting control rods and lacing the liquids with neutron-absorbing boron, reactor operators contend they can store the spent fuel safely.

But any geological disruption or structural failure or cooling system breakdown could cause a catastrophic radiation release. There are those who believe the pools themselves are at least as dangerous as the reactors nearby.[45]

Near Lewiston, New York, there are those who believe rad-wastes have already begun to take their human toll. Lewiston was the site of the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works, a military facility. It is sixty miles from West Valley and just ten from the infamous Love Canal.

Between 1944 and 1950 the operators of the ordnance works left 20,489 tons of radioactive waste--most of it from the Manhattan Project--strewn around a fifteen-hundred-acre site. Some of the wastes were packed into a reinforced concrete water silo, making it one of the world's most concentrated deposits of radium. But eight thousand tons were also just dumped on the ground, exposed to the elements and likely to be washed into nearby creeks, three of which empty into Lake Ontario.

The Department of the Interior has also confirmed that during the course of plant operations, radioactive liquids were intentionally spilled on the ground after storage tanks were full. "There is no question the material was handled just like any other ore," the DOE's Robert Ramsey told The New York Times. "There was just very little regard given to the fact that it was radioactive."[46] Similar attitudes were also in force at a Manhattan Project site in nearby Tonawanda where some thirty-seven million gallons of radioactive chemical wastes were dumped into unmonitored wells.[47]

In early 1981 a report from the New York State Assembly cited "an incredible occasionally surreal history of federal mismanagement" at Lewiston and other toxic dump sites in the area. The mismanagement at Lewiston was "manifested by sloppy and deficient record-keeping procedures, inadequate mapping of buried wastes, and technological primitivism. . . ." Because of high rainfall and poor drainage, it was "clear that the [Lewiston] site should never have been chosen for the storage of radioactive materials in the first place." Federal officials knew of the problems, but "ignored them."

The key determinants of the program were "expediency and economy," and it featured "the dumping of radioactive wastes in open and often unmapped pits in rusting barrels stacked along the roadside, and in inadequate structures originally designed for different purposes. Inevitably these practices and others resulted in the contamination of the . . . site and in the leaching of radioactive contaminants off the site and onto land outside the control of the Federal Government."[48] And, in fact, spot readings at the site showed radiation levels one thousand times above normal.[49]

No official health studies have been done on the area. But informal surveys by local citizens have indicated a frightening aftermath. Dr. Resnikoff reported finding fifteen deformities among twenty deer captured near local dump sites. Initial autopsies of some of them indicated high levels of radium and cesium in their livers.[50]

A local reverend noted twelve new cases of cancer among his eight-hundred-member congregation in the last three months of 1979. And a survey by local resident Donna Srock of eleven households on a street bordering the former ordnance works uncovered nineteen cases of major illness, including respiratory ailments, blood disease, and cancer.[51]

Nearby dump sites also host large quantities of high-level toxic chemicals, so few people in the area believe their health problems are strictly attributable to radiation. But few doubt its lethal contribution. "I think that place is an obscenity," Lewiston resident Danielle DeGolier told us. Of seventy-one people in the immediate vicinity, she said, thirty-three had cancer. Eleven homes in the near periphery reported nine cases of cancer. The nearby elementary school had already suffered four cases of childhood leukemia.

"The World Health Organization says eighty to ninety percent of cancers are environmentally induced," DeGolier told us. "We've got radiation here and every other pollution you can think of. Ten years from now, this place will make Love Canal look like a drop in the bucket."[52]

19. "Nuclear Shipments: Accidents on the Rise," The Guardian, December 3, 1980.

20. GAO, Programs for Insuring the Safe Transport of Hazardous Material Need Improvement, CED/81-5 (Washington, D.C.: GAO, November 4, 1980).

21. Agreement States Hearings, pp. 6-12.

22. "U.S. Disputes Washington State Law on A-Waste," Washington Post, Associated Press, April 14, 1980.

23. Marvin Resnikoff, "Nuclear Wastes--The Myths and the Realities," Sierra, July/August 1980, p. 32 (hereafter cited as "Realities").

24. Ibid.

25. DOE, Spent Fuel and Waste Inventories and Projections, ORO-778 (Oak Ridge, Tenn.: Oak Ridge Operations Office, August 1980), p. 6 (hereafter cited as Spent Fuel).

26. Environmental Policy Center, "Biomedical Waste Disposal Regulations Adopted," in Radioactive Readings 2, No. 4 (March 20, 1981).

27. Barry Hagar, Chief Counsel, Subcommittee on Environment, Energy and Natural Resources, of the U.S. House Government Operations Committee, interview, February 1981; and Douglas Foster, "You Are What They Eat," Mother Jones, July 1981.

28. Ibid.

29. "Pilot Recalls Navy Sank Nuke Waste," Sacramento Journal, Associated Press, January 3, 1981, p. 12.

30. Foster, "You Are What They Eat."

31. It was the potential of using plutonium in bombs that prompted the Carter administration to prohibit the export of reprocessing technology. With characteristic inconsistency Carter continued to promote the sale of reactors at the same time, thus making the production of more plutonium inevitable anyway. In 1975, at the trial of community activist Sam Lovejoy, who toppled a weather tower in Montague, Massachusetts, to help stop a nuclear project, Dr. John Gofman asked in reference to the plutonium question: "Is there anything you'd like to guarantee will be done 99.9999% perfectly forever?" From Green Mountain Post Films, Lovejoy 's Nuclear War, Turners Falls, MA., 1975.

32. Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 15, 1979, p. 1.

33. U.S. Congress, Senate Subcommittee on Environment and Public Works, 96th Cong. 1st sess., September 11 and December 11, 1979, Serial #96-H27, p. 210.

34. Lonnie Rosenwald and Rod Gramer, "So What if the Water's Nuked?" Progressive, October 1980; and J. B. Robertson, et al., The Influence of Liquid Waste Disposal on the Geochemistry of Water at the National Reactor Testing Station, Idaho. 1952-1970, UC-70 (U.S. Geological Survey, 1970); and Barraclough, Hydrology.

35. Alvarez, Savannah River Study.

36. Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 3, and June 15, 1979.

37. Marvin Resnikoff, West Valley: A Challenge for the 80's (Buffalo: Sierra Club Radioactive Waste Campaign, Box 64, Station G, Buffalo, NY 12224).

38. Ross Scarano, NRC, interview, July 1981.

39. Bernard Cohen, "The Disposal of Radioactive Wastes from Fission Reactors," Scientific American 236 No. 6 (1977): 21. Dr. Cohen has one of the most active scientific imaginations on the nuclear scene. See also, "The Role of Radon in Comparisons of Effects of Radioactivity Releases from Nuclear Power, Coal Burning and Phosphate Mining," Health Physics Journal 40, No. 1 (January 1981): pp. 19-27.

40. Resnikoff, "Realities."

41. Marvin Resnikoff, interview, June 1981. Dr. Resnikoff told us costs for waste solidification at West Valley are estimated at $385 million, and for exhuming the low-level burial grounds there at $1 billion. To recoup some of the costs the state of New York has sued Nuclear Fuel Services and Getty Oil. See NYSERDA v. NFS and Getty Oil, Civ. 81-18E, Western District of Federal District Court, New York.

42. Minna Hamilton, Sierra Club, interview, May 1981.

43. Floyd Zell, interview, June 1981.

44. Emil Zimmerman, interview, June 1981.

45. In a June 1981 interview, Gordon Thompson of the Union of Concerned Scientists told us he felt that a coupling of cooling systems and the proximity of the storage pools to the reactors made the odds on an accident in those pools "at least as high" as in the reactors themselves. "The danger is very real," he said. According to the DOE, in 1980 there were some 7460 metric tons of uranium in spent fuel assemblies in the U.S., with a predicted 90,000 tons to be on hand by the year 2000. (Spent Fuel, p. 3.)

46. Ralph Blumenthal, "Atom Wastes of War Haunt Niagara Area from `Grave,'" New York Times, June 23, 1980 (hereafter cited as "Haunt").

47. New York State Assembly Task Force on Toxic Substances, The Federal Connection: A History of US Military Involvement in the Toxic Contamination of Love Canal, and the Niagara Frontier Region (Albany: Task Force on Toxic Substances, January 29, 1981), p. 120.

48. Ibid., pp. i and viii.

49. Blumenthal, "Haunt."

50. Marvin Resnikoff, "Radioactivity Measurements of Four Deer Liver Samples," Sierra Club Radioactive Waste Campaign, March 30, 1981.

51. Blumenthal, "Haunt." See also, Ralph Blumenthal, "Big Atom Waste Site Reported Found Near Buffalo," New York Times, January 31, 1981.

52. Danielle DeGolier, interviews, March and April 1981; see also, Maclean's Magazine 94, No. 7 (February 16, 1981): 12.

Catastrophe at Kyshtym

In the fall or winter of 1957-1958--within months of the fires at Rocky Flats and Windscale, and while wastes were simmering at Lewiston and Tonawanda and still piling up at INEL, Savannah River, and Hanford--a massive explosion blew apart a radioactive-waste dump in the Ural Mountains of the Soviet Union.

The blast sent huge quantities of radiation into the air. It killed hundreds--possibly thousands--of people. It made permanently unlivable an area at least fifty kilometers square. And it ended forever any possible illusions about the dangers of radioactive waste.

When it happened, Soviet authorities quickly muzzled news of the disaster. So did the Central Intelligence Agency, which knew about it within the year, but kept it secret from the American public for two decades. Word of the explosion finally leaked into the western press in 1976, when emigre scientist Dr. Zhores Medvedev published "Two Decades of Dissidence" in the British journal New Scientist. The article was primarily about Soviet science. But in the course of his discussion Medvedev devoted a section to the Kyshtym accident, which he attributed to sloppy Soviet handling of rad-wastes.

"There was an enormous explosion, like a violent volcano," Medvedev explained. "The nuclear reactions had led to an over-heating in the underground burial grounds. The explosion poured radioactive dust and materials high up into the sky." The human fallout was "terrible. . . . Tens of thousands of people were affected, hundreds dying, though the real figures have never been made public. The large area, where the accident happened, is still considered dangerous and is closed to the public."[53]

Medvedev's passing descriptions drew outraged attacks from an unexpected quarter--Sir John Hill, head of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. Hill called the story "rubbish," "pure science fiction," and "a figment of the imagination." In a letter to The Times (London), Hill charged that "there may have been some other accident, but at a time when the public are concerned about the problems of nuclear waste I feel I should make it absolutely clear that in my view the burial of nuclear waste could not lead to the type of accident described."[54]

Medvedev was bewildered by the response. The accident was well known in the Urals. Having been exiled from Russia for his "western" views, he was now being blasted in the West for mentioning something he had assumed was common knowledge.

But within a week after the controversy began, news stories appeared in The Denver Post, Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere, acknowledging that an accident had taken place. The articles relied on "American intelligence experts"--the CIA--who asserted the accident was caused by a runaway reactor. The agency knew otherwise, but its "experts" said estimates of "hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries" were "hard to believe."[55]

A month later a Russian emigre named Lev Tumerman wrote the Jerusalem Post that in 1960 he had driven through the Urals and had seen a road sign that "warned drivers not to stop for the next 30 kilometers and to drive through at maximum speed. On both sides of the road as far as one could see the land was `dead'; no villages, no towns, only the chimneys of destroyed houses, no cultivated fields or pastures, no herds, no people. . . . nothing. The whole country around Sverdlovsk was exceedingly `hot.' An enormous area, some hundreds of square kilometres, had been laid waste, rendered useless and unproductive for a very long time, tens or perhaps hundreds of years."

As for the crucial question of what had actually caused the accident, Tumerman said, "I cannot say with certainty" whether waste was the culprit. "However," he added, "all people with whom I spoke--scientists as well as laymen--had no doubt that the blame lay with Soviet officialdom who were negligent and careless in storing nuclear wastes."[56]

Ironically Tumerman was an avid supporter of nuclear power and had written to the Post in part to assure the Israeli public that the catastrophe had not been caused by a reactor.

Now, still under attack, Medvedev began a painstaking survey of Russian scientific literature. Though explicit mention of the accident was banned, scores of scientists had gone to the Urals to study its aftereffects. One of Kyshtym's great ironies was that despite official secrecy far more will be known to future generations about the radiation damage surrounding it than about either Windscale or Rocky Flats, where official scientific follow-up was virtually nonexistent.

Medvedev knew that his former colleagues had written more than a hundred studies involving lakes and the fish in them, insects, mammals, birds and vegetation that were "somehow" exposed to heavy doses of radiation in late 1957 or early 1958. By identifying the types of plant and animal life, the weather patterns, and other key features of the area, Medvedev pieced together an indisputable portrait of the "vast nothing" created by the catastrophe.

With the 1979 publication of his Nuclear Disaster in the Urals even John Hill capitulated. "As a piece of scientific detection work," Hill conceded in New Scientist, "Medvedev's book . . . makes a very strong case for the occurrence of a major nuclear accident in the southern Ural region."[57]

In late 1979 a special report from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory confirmed that a system of fourteen lakes had been contaminated by the Kyshtym blast. About thirty small towns listed in Soviet maps before the accident were gone from contemporary maps.[58]

After being forced by a Freedom of Information suit to release some of its documents, the CIA also confirmed the accident. As early as 1959 the agency had obtained eyewitness accounts confirming that "all stores in Kamensk-Uralskiy which sold milk, meat and other foodstuffs were closed as a precaution against radiation exposure, and new supplies were brought in two days later by train and truck. The food was sold directly from the vehicles, and the resulting queues were reminiscent of those during the worst shortages during World War II. . . . The people in Kamensk-Uralskiy grew hysterical with fear, and with incidence of unknown `mysterious' diseases breaking out. A few leading citizens aroused public anger by wearing small radiation counters which were not available to everyone. . . ."[59]

One eyewitness reported a "terrific explosion" that made the ground and buildings shake, and that resulted in all the leaves on nearby trees being covered with "a heavy layer of red dust. . . . Very quickly all the leaves curled up and fell off the trees" and leafy green vegetables also "curled up and died."

The agency learned of a hospital "completely filled with victims of the explosion. . . . Some were bandaged and some were not. . . . The skin on their face, hands and other exposed parts of the body was sloughing off."

Meanwhile homes had been burned to prevent people from reentering them, and many local citizens "were allowed to take with them only the clothes in which they were dressed." There was also "common knowledge" that the area "had an abnormally high number of cancer cases."[60]

"One of the current topics of conversation at the time," said another source, "was whether eating fish or eating crabs from the radioactive rivers of the area was more dangerous. . . . Hundreds of people perished and the area became and will remain radioactive for years."[61]

Once news of the accident leaked out, official American response was restrained. "We've handled tens of thousands of pounds of this stuff now for better than 30 years," said John O'Leary, then the Carter administration's deputy secretary of energy. "You can say they had an accident there. But what does that say? It says they were careless."[62]

U.S. experts and analysts generally theorized the Urals catastrophe had been caused by a chemical or steam explosion, and that it could not happen here. "They don't know what they're doing and we do," said one Ford administration official. American wastes "leak, but they don't explode."[63]

A special 1972 AEC report warned otherwise. Entitled "WASH-1520," the study said a waste-dumping trench at Hanford--labeled Z-9--had been pumped with wastes containing plutonium. The plutonium had clustered. About one hundred kilograms of it--enough for at least ten Nagasaki-sized bombs--had accumulated in about eighteen hundred cubic feet of soil. That, warned "WASH-1520," led to a situation where "it is possible to conceive of conditions which could result in a chain reaction."[64]

The report emphasized that the chances of that were minimal. But Congress hastily voted two million dollars, and the trench was dug up.

How close we came to a Kyshtym at Hanford is unknown. A better question might be how close we will come at Hanford, at those reactor site "swimming pools," at Lewiston, at West Valley, at Savannah River, and at INEL. The United States, John O'Leary assured the National Journal, has developed "elaborate standards" for dealing with radiation. But, he conceded, "tomorrow morning you could have a very bad accident because of stupidity."[65]

Kyshtym was "a tragedy of extraordinary dimensions," added Richard Pollock of Ralph Nader's Critical Mass Energy Project, which had sued for the release of the CIA documents. The explosion of nuclear wastes had underscored the dangers of both weapons production and the "peaceful atom." Pollock called for a moratorium on nuclear reactor construction, and asked: "Will U.S. energy policy makers be willing to accept the risk of hundreds of square miles of heavily contaminated cropland or metropolitan areas as the price for electricity? Will we be willing to write off a New York or Chicago or a Seattle or Miami as the Soviets have with cities in their country?"[66]

53. Zhores Medvedev, "Two Decades of Dissidence," New Scientist, November 4, 1976, pp. 264-267; see also, Zhores Medvedev, "Facts Behind the Soviet Nuclear Disaster," New Scientist, June 30, 1977, pp. 761-764 (hereafter cited as "Facts").

54. Zhores Medvedev, Nuclear Disaster in the Urals (New York: Vintage, 1980) pp. 5, 6, and 14.

55. Ibid., pp. 6-7.

56. Ibid., pp. 11-12.

57. Ibid., afterword.

58. J. R. Trabalka, et al.,Analysis of the l957-58 Soviet Nuclear Accident, ORNL-5613 (Oak Ridge: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, December 1979), pp. 12-17. This report also contains an interesting discussion of speculative causes of the accident, on p. 41.

59. Central Intelligence Agency, Accident at the Kasli Atomic Plant, Report #CS 3/389, 785 (Washington, D.C.: CIA, March 4, 1959). In citing this and other CIA reports by date and number, we are trying to best approximate their exact source. But given the heavily censored and rough photocopied state of the documents in our possession, some of the dates and/or numbers here may not correspond properly to the quoted material. The information itself, however, seems incontrovertible. See also Medvedev, Nuclear Disaster in the Urals, and "Facts."

60. Central Intelligence Agency, Miscellaneous Information on Nuclear Installations in the U.S.S.R., Report #CS K-3/465,141 (Washington, D.C.: CIA, February 16, 1961); and Mysterious Explosion in Chelyabinsk Oblast/Possible Radioactive Fallout Causing Destruction of Trees and Vegetation/Many People Burned as Result of Explosion, Report #3,202,034 (Washington, D.C.: CIA, January 17, 1962).

61. Central Intelligence Agency, 1958 "Kyshtym Disaster"/Nuclear Accident Involving Plutonium Wastes from Military Nuclear Reactors, Report #B-321/06645-77 (Washington, D.C.: CIA, March 25, 1977). These documents were made public as a result of a Freedom of Information suit.

62. Richard Corrigan, "Nuclear Disaster--Could Whatever Happened There Happen Here?" National Journal, August 19, 1979, p. 1329.

63. Ibid.

64. Medvedev, Nuclear Disaster in the Urals, pp. 152-153.

65. Corrigan, "Nuclear Disaster."

66. Richard Pollock, in Nader Group Discloses Federal Report Confirming Soviet Nuclear Accident in 1957-58 (Washington, D.C.: Critical Mass Energy Project, P.O. Box 1538, Washington, D.C. 20013; February 14, 1980).

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