Testing toxic cleanups, one gator at a time

By Peter Eisler and Marisa Kendal
USA Today

Updated 2/2/11   10:44:22 AM


Radioactive animals help scientists monitor nuclear sites


SAVANNAH RIVER SITE, S.C. — Behind the barbed-wire fences, amid the hulking buildings where government scientists have spent decades processing plutonium for America’s nuclear arsenal, a new generation of researchers now wrestles alligators

On this day, the researchers struggle to move a 90-pounder, its jaw taped shut, toward a small concrete box on the floor. They tape the animal’s feet to keep it still. Then they slide its tail into the box and check a gauge on the side.They’re looking for radiation.

The alligator on the Savannah River nuclear weapons site serves as the modern-day equivalent of a canary in a coal mine, a measure of federal efforts to manage a legacy of contamination left by a half-century of nuclear weapons production. At this 310-square-mile compound and a half-dozen other sites across the country where secret labs, nuclear reactors and manufacturing plants built the nation’s nuclear arsenal, scientists capture and test thousands of animals a year to assess the governme progress in tackling some of the world’s most daunting — and costly — environmental cleanups.

Patrolling land and waters tainted by radioactive waste, toxic chemicals and heavy metals, researchers catch fish and salamanders, trap feral hogs and deer, and monitor bees and ants. They even search for radioactive animal droppings.

“If you believe that a site has been cleaned up and you find a contaminated animal,” researcher Tracey Tuberville says, “you know you have a problem.”

Tuberville works at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, which is run by the University of Georgia under a federal contract to assess wildlife contamination at the weapons reservation along the South Carolina-Georgia border.

The animal monitoring at Savannah River and its sister sites underscores a shift in attitude within the nation’s nuclear weapons establishment.

For decades during the Cold War, workers gave little regard to the environmental consequences of the weapons operation, often dumping contaminated waste in unmarked pits with no controls to keep it from spreading into soil and groundwater.

The Energy Department, which now controls the nuclear weapons program, estimates that cleaning up the pollution across all current and former weapons production sites could take 70 years and cost $300 billion or more. The department spends about $1.5 million a year on wildlife monitoring as part of a broader effort that also examines plants, soil, water and air.

Since 2009, several thousand animals have been captured on nuclear weapons sites for radiation testing. Fewer than a dozen have been found with radiation levels above what the government considers acceptable for public exposure. Most of those were deer, which are tested in the highest numbers and considered a good indicator of whether contamination is reaching animals that could carry it off-site to publicly accessible areas.

Researchers also have found radiation in mice and other rodents.

In one case, researchers at the Hanford nuclear weapons reservation in eastern Washington state found a contaminated ant hill.

“The toxic waste and radioactive waste burial grounds at these sites are going to be there for the long term and could definitely have an effect on plant and animal life well into the future, so it’s important to have these programs,” says Tom Clements, who monitors Savannah River for Friends of the Earth, an environmental group.

“This is a good indication for the community of the impact … of activities at the site.”

Radioactive rabbit spurs fears

The alligator, tested in December, was free of radiation. But a month earlier — and about 3,000 miles away — officials at Hanford discovered a rabbit contaminated with high levels of radioactive cesium.

The rabbit was trapped after radioactive droppings were found near enough to the edge of the 586-square-mile reservation that local health officials opted to survey the area for any signs that contaminated animals may have gotten off-site. The risk is that those animals could expose or be eaten by humans or other wildlife, but no evidence of that was found. Workers fenced off the area where they believe the rabbit was contaminated, covered tainted soil with metal plates, removed plants, and sprayed the ground with fox urine to repel other animals until cleanup is completed.

When animals get into contaminated areas, the stakes can be high — and efforts to address the consequences can be elaborate. Last year, for example, the Energy Department used $300,000 in federal stimulus money for a project that included using low-flying, sensor-equipped aircraft to locate radioactive droppings and other waste spread decades ago by wildlife that got into a waste site.

“There’s a lot of contaminated land out there that stems back to the Manhattan Projectand the Cold War and all the weapons production we did during that time,” says Frank Marcinowski, deputy assistant secretary of Energy for environmental compliance. The monitoring programs are critical to make sure the animals “don’t get into the general public and cause a concern … and to help us find (contamination) that we need to be mindful of and make sure those situations are mitigated.”

Communities often are involved in the monitoring work, too. At Savannah River and several other sites, officials periodically allow area residents to hunt deer, turkey, feral hogs and other game. Every animal taken in the hunts is tested before it can be taken off-site. The results are logged as part of the monitoring program, and any animal with radiation levels that exceed safety thresholds is confiscated.

Officials also keep track of each hunter’s annual take. That way they can ensure that those who participate each year don’t hit cumulative exposure limits from repeatedly taking animals with even minimal radiation levels — the equivalent of getting too many X-rays over time.

The hunts at Savannah River are so popular that participants enter a lottery to participate. Site officials call the program “the Masters Tournament of hunts,” because tickets are as tough to get as tickets to the famous golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., just up the road.

“I’ve heard jokes that the deer get so big up there because they’re drinking radioactive water or that you’ll see a pig with three eyes, but I’m not really concerned about contamination of the meat — they really check it over,” says Brian Carroll, a graphic designer and hunting guide who joined a hunt on the site this fall. “I don’t think people really worry about it. Many of them go back year after year after year. … It’s great for the community, to be able to pay $50 or whatever the fee is and be on some of the best property in South Carolina to shoot a big deer.”

At some sites, such as the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee, as many as a half-dozen or more of the deer killed in hunts each year are confiscated because their radiation levels are too high. Only once has a deer been confiscated at Savannah River, and that was more than a decade ago, according to site records.

Hazards last for decades

That may be because contamination is more contained at Savannah River, which was built in the 1950s and featured more environmental controls than the nation’s first, World War II-era nuclear weapons facilities.

Even so, pollution is widespread, and no site in the nuclear weapons complex may have more experience in tracking its effects. The university-run ecology lab has been a fixture there since construction began in 1951, monitoring wildlife the entire time. The trove of data allows scientists to easily spot changes in the level of contamination in different species.

“There are very few other places where you can get these sorts of long-term data,” says Stacey Lance, a scientist at the lab. That allows researchers to compare data from clean areas to contaminated ones and “really know what the differences are … (and) what’s going on.”

That information will be as important as ever as Savannah River tackles the two-pronged mission of cleaning up waste from past operations while simultaneously launching new ones.

The site has 37 million gallons of highly radioactive waste stored in 49 underground tanks, 22 of which are seen as high risks for leakage because they have just a single wall and no external liner. Several streams and ponds remain polluted with radioactive contaminants, and some of those waters also are fouled with heavy metals and toxic chemicals. A September audit by Congress’ Government Accountability Office found that just emptying the high-risk tanks will cost $1.4 billion more than the original $3.2 billion estimate, and could take years longer than anticipated.

Meanwhile, work recently was completed on a new, higher-capacity facility to produce tritium, a radioactive gas used in nuclear weapons. Construction is also underway on a massive new facility that will convert excess plutonium from decommissioned U.S. warheads into commercial nuclear reactor fuel that cannot be used to build weapons.

Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club of South Carolina, oppose many of the new operations, arguing that they could generate more nuclear waste and bring more contamination to an ecosystem already damaged heavily by nuclear weapons production. The Energy Department says the new facilities will be state of the art and are needed to sustain the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal and support non-proliferation initiatives.

Ultimately, the deer, the fish and the alligators may help settle such debates.