Wor­ries re­newed about con­tam­i­na­tion from arms test­ing


LOS AN­GE­LES — At the dawn of the nu­clear age, the Franklin D. Roo­sevelt ad­min­is­tra­tion placed the na­tion’s ma­jor nu­clear weapons pro­duc­tion and re­search fa­cil­i­ties in large, iso­lated reser­va­tions to shield them from for­eign spies — and to pro­tect the Amer­i­can pub­lic from the still un­known risks of ra­dioac­tiv­ity.

By the late 1980s, near the end of the Cold War, fed­eral lands in South Carolina, Ten­nessee, New Mex­ico, Colorado, Ohio and Wash­ing­ton state, among other places, were so pol­luted with ra­dionu­clides that the land was deemed per­ma­nently un­suit­able for hu­man habi­ta­tion.

That much has long been ac­cepted as a price for the na­tion’s nu­clear de­ter­rent. But a far more com­plex prob­lem could emerge if re­cent re­search is cor­rect.

Stud­ies by a Mass­a­chu­setts sci­en­tist say in­vis­i­ble ra­dioac­tive par­ti­cles of plu­to­nium, tho­rium and ura­nium are show­ing up in house­hold dust, au­to­mo­tive air clean­ers and along hik­ing trails out­side the fac­to­ries and lab­o­ra­to­ries that for half a cen­tury con­trib­uted to the na­tion’s stock­pile of nu­clear weapons.

The find­ings pro­vide trou­bling new ev­i­dence that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is los­ing con­trol of at least some of the ra­dioac­tive byprod­ucts of the coun­try’s weapons pro­gram.

Marco Kaltofen, a nu­clear foren­sics ex­pert and a pro­fes­sor at Worces­ter Polytech­nic In­sti­tute, said he col­lected sam­ples from com­mu­ni­ties out­side three lab sites across the na­tion and found a wide vari­a­tion of par­ti­cle sizes. He said they could de­liver life­long doses that ex­ceed al­low­able fed­eral stan­dards if in­haled.

“If you in­hale two par­ti­cles, you will ex­ceed your life­time dose un­der oc­cu­pa­tional stan­dards, and there is a low prob­a­bil­ity of de­tect­ing it,” he said.

A peer-re­viewed study by Kaltofen was pub­lished in its fi­nal form in May in En­vi­ron­men­tal En­gi­neer­ing Sci­ence.

Kaltofen, who also is the prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor at the nu­clear and chem­i­cal foren­sics con­sult­ing firm Bos­ton Chem­i­cal Data Corp., re­leased a sec­ond study in re­cent weeks.

The En­ergy De­part­ment has long in­sisted small par­ti­cles those col­lected by Kaltofen de­liver minute doses of ra­dioac­tiv­ity, well be­low typ­i­cal pub­lic ex­po­sures.

One of the na­tion’s lead­ing ex­perts on ra­dioac­tiv­ity doses, Bruce Napier, who works in the En­ergy De­part­ment’s lab sys­tem, said the doses cited by Kaltofen would not pose a threat to pub­lic health.

Such as­sur­ances have been re­jected by nu­clear plant work­ers, their unions and ac­tivists who mon­i­tor en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues at nearly every lab and nu­clear weapons site in the na­tion.

Jay Cogh­lan, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Nu­clear Watch New Mex­ico, cited a long his­tory of de­nial about the claims of “down winders,” the res­i­dents of Western states who were ex­posed to ra­dioac­tive fall­out from at­mo­spheric weapons test­ing.

“We can­not trust self-re­port­ing by the De­part­ment of En­ergy,” he said. “I don’t ac­cept that low lev­els of ra­dioac­tiv­ity have no risk.”

Tom Car­pen­ter, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of an­other watch­dog group, the Han­ford Chal­lenge in cen­tral Wash­ing­ton, said as re­cently as last year that the En­ergy De­part­ment re­leased an un­known quan­tity of ra­dioac­tive par­ti­cles dur­ing de­mo­li­tion of a shut­tered weapons fac­tory, the Plu­to­nium Fin­ish­ing Plant.

Af­ter a se­ries of three re­leases dur­ing 2017, the En­ergy De­part­ment shut down the de­mo­li­tion and has yet to re­sume it. Forty-two work­ers were ex­posed in the in­ci­dents.

“If you work in a coal mine, you go home with coal dust on you,” Car­pen­ter said. “Same with a tex­tile mill; you go home with cot­ton dust. Th­ese Han­ford work­ers went home with plu­to­nium dust.”

The sec­ond study by Kaltofen, com­pleted in Au­gust, re­ported that fairly high ra­dioac­tiv­ity lev­els were found in 30 sam­ples from the com­mu­ni­ties around the Han­ford nu­clear site, near Rich­land, Wash­ing­ton. The sam­ples found con­tam­i­na­tion on per­sonal ve­hi­cles driven in­side the Han­ford site that would leave me­chan­ics ex­posed if they worked around the ve­hi­cles, the re­port said.

Kaltofen also re­viewed an in­ter­nal study in March by an En­ergy De­part­ment con­trac­tor, Wash­ing­ton River Pro­tec­tion So­lu­tions, that found a cal­cu­lated po­ten­tial dose of 95 mil­lirem for work­ers, roughly 10 times higher than the fed­eral En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency stan­dard.

Kaltofen said a broader in­de­pen­dent study should look at resid­ual con­tam­i­na­tion around Han­ford. An En­ergy De­part­ment spokesman at the Han­ford site said the of­fice had no com­ment on the stud­ies.

For his stud­ies, Kaltofen col­lected sam­ples out­side the Los Alamos Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory in New Mex­ico, the former Rocky Flats weapons plant near Den­ver and the Han­ford site.

The sam­ples were col­lected from the crawl spa­ces of homes, a trailer park of­fice, vac­uum cleaner bags, au­to­mo­tive air fil­ters, fur­nace fil­ters and along a hik­ing trail.

He sub­jected those sam­ples to elec­tronic mi­croscopy anal­y­sis to de­ter­mine ex­actly what type of el­e­ment was emit­ting ra­di­a­tion. He iden­ti­fied iso­topes of ce­sium, tho­rium, ura­nium and plu­to­nium, all the re­sults of build­ing nu­clear weapons parts.

The com­mu­ni­ties sur­round­ing th­ese fa­cil­i­ties have long adapted to the re­al­ity that they are near ra­dioac­tiv­ity, though they are not will­ing to take risks that com­pro­mise their health. Kaltofen’s sam­pling found some very high lev­els of con­tam­i­na­tion in Los Alamos’ Acid Canyon, a recre­ational area near a com­mu­nity pool and skate park.

The canyon was used dur­ing the Man­hat­tan Pro­ject and for years later to dump ni­tric acid wastes from plu­to­nium pro­cess­ing, send­ing toxic and ra­dioac­tive ef­flu­ent down the steep ravine.

The En­ergy De­part­ment con­ducted a cleanup in 2001, aim­ing to re­duce ra­dioac­tiv­ity lev­els to the stan­dard of “as low as rea­son­ably achiev­able.” The lab takes the po­si­tion that the cleanup low­ered doses to recre­ational users well be­low fed­eral guide­lines.

“I trust the cleanup, but I am aware that it would be im­pos­si­ble to clean it up en­tirely,” said Jody Ben­son, a Los Alamos res­i­dent and chair of the lo­cal Sierra Club chap­ter, who hikes in the canyon al­most every day. “Be­cause I grew up here, I am a bit cava­lier about ra­dioac­tiv­ity, but that doesn’t mean I am not con­cerned. I’d sup­port fur­ther re­search.”

Ra­di­a­tion is a known cause of can­cer. Much of what is known about the health ef­fects of ra­dioac­tiv­ity de­rives from U.S. stud­ies of sur­vivors of the Hiroshima and Na­gasaki bomb­ings dur­ing World War II.

Even to­day, de­ter­min­ing how large a dose a per­son gets from a ra­dioac­tive ex­po­sure is highly com­pli­cated, said Napier, one of the na­tion’s top ex­perts on ra­dioac­tive health ef­fects at the En­ergy De­part­ment’s Pa­cific North­west Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory and a mem­ber of the U.S. Na­tional Coun­cil on Ra­di­a­tion Pro­tec­tion and Mea­sure­ments.

Napier noted that ura­nium and tho­rium are heavy met­als, much like lead, which lim­its their trans­port through the air.

“Large and dense par­ti­cles usu­ally do not travel far in the air; they are essen­tially like small grains of sand and fall out close to the source,” Napier said in an email ex­change. “They can bounce along the ground for short dis­tances in higher winds, but usu­ally end up stuck to the soil sur­face even­tu­ally.

“Un­less we were to find a large num­ber of them in one place, I do not con­sider th­ese in­di­vid­ual par­ti­cles to be a par­tic­u­lar pub­lic health haz­ard. The big ones are too large to be res­pirable; the small ones have very small ra­dioac­tive con­tents,” he said.

Napier said av­er­age ra­dioac­tiv­ity ex­po­sures for Amer­i­cans is go­ing up, largely be­cause of med­i­cal use of ra­di­a­tion. On av­er­age, Amer­i­cans get about 100 mil­lirems from cos­mic gamma ra­di­a­tion, 200 more mil­lirems from radon doses and 300 mil­lirems from med­i­cal ex­po­sures, he said. The life­time es­ti­mates of ex­po­sure from nu­clear plant dust are much lower than that, he said.

But Kaltofen said such cal­cu­la­tions missed the mark.

A worker’s ex­po­sure to ra­dioac­tiv­ity, such as walk­ing by a ra­dioac­tive sub­stance or hav­ing par­ti­cles cling to cloth­ing, is checked by mon­i­tors and badges worn by work­ers at plant sites. Such ex­po­sure is like a med­i­cal X-ray, which de­liv­ers a mo­men­tary dose. But in­hal­ing a small par­ti­cle of plu­to­nium or tho­rium can go un­no­ticed by such mon­i­tors and de­liver a life­time of al­pha ra­di­a­tion right next to lung tis­sue, Kaltofen said.

“You can walk through a por­tal mon­i­tor with­out set­ting it off but you can get a sub­stan­tial amount of en­ergy from par­ti­cles in the body,” he said.

“If you in­hale two [ra­dioac­tive] par­ti­cles, you will ex­ceed your life­time dose un­der oc­cu­pa­tional stan­dards, and there is a low prob­a­bil­ity of de­tect­ing it.”



Marco Kaltofen’s stud­ies sug­gest greater haz­ards than were pre­vi­ously known from ra­dioac­tiv­ity sur­round­ing fed­eral nu­clear sites.

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