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DOE and its own nuclear waste - a tale of five turtles

When five radioactive turtles were discovered last fall on the grounds of the federal Savannah River nuclear weapons plant, there was a lot of in-house discussion about the implications. But no one told the public.

When, under federal court rules, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) was asked last year to provide documents about high-level nuclear waste storage tanks at the plant, for use in a lawsuit against the plant, two key reports about problems with the tanks were withheld. DOE officials at the plant have confirmed that the reports were not turned over.

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When William Lawless, a DOE engineer at the plant, presented his nonclassified report critical of certain nuclear-waste storage practices there, his superiors decided not to make the report ''final,'' a step that in effect kept it from being made routinely available to the public.

Information in the report was ''too old,'' says the DOE's Edward Goldberg, Mr. Lawless's former superior at the plant. And employees of Du Pont, the contractor that runs the facility, had already put a number of the report's recommendations into effect, he says.

But Lawless, who now teaches mathematics at Paine College in nearby Augusta, Ga., says that by not making the report public, it was not subject to further evaluation by non-DOE experts. Not telling the public of internal (and unclassified) environmental problems is something that has happened not only at the Savannah River plant, but at other nuclear facilities run by the DOE, according to environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), based in Washington.

''Their (the DOE's) lowest priority is environmental protection,'' says the NRDC's Thomas Cochran. At the Savannah River plant ''they've got a real waste-disposal problem, and they appear to be covering it up,'' he says.

DOE and Du Pont officials, interviewed at length at the plant, strongly disagree. They say they are not hiding anything and that they make important information available to the public regularly.

The differences in viewpoint are seen, to some extent, in a close examination of internal documents (which the DOE made available to the Monitor), in the major items Lawless criticizes, and in the DOE's responses.

Underground storage of nuclear waste. A huge tract of land is used at the plant to bury low-level nuclear waste. Trenchs are dug in the dirt and cardboard boxes and other containers of the waste are dumped in and the trenches covered. Slowly, some radioactive material seeps through the soil to eventually mix with ground water. The key is to minimize leakage so that the eventual contamination will be within what the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers a safe drinking-water level.

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Lawless criticizes the use of cardboard boxes as the main container. But he also criticizes the way large radioactive pipes were buried in the trenches - with one end open. That added to leakage of tritium, a radioactive material, he says. He suggested welding the open end shut.

Edward Albenesius, a Du Pont research manager for waste disposal, says Lawless's recommendation ''influenced us to move forward'' with the capping of the pipes.

But the need for such capping was one of the items that the public never saw because the Lawless report was not made public.

Wells monitoring radioactive leakage from the trenches. Dr. Albenesius describes the elaborate monitoring system as one of the most-studied nuclear-waste disposal systems in the nation. Yet Lawless says the fact that one monitoring well in the waste burial grounds showed much higher contamination rates than the others was not included in the plant's public reports.

An internal document from 1977 shows this contamination finding; DOE officials confirm that the finding was not included in a public report about the whole waste burial ground.

In a subsequent interview, the DOE's Mr. Goldberg said he had forgotten about a 1976 report that gave the data on the well. But, he adds, it had not been put in the plant's public library in Aiken, S.C., but in a federal information center in Virginia. Lawless says he was never made aware of the 1976 document during his evaluation of the waste burial ground use.

Albenesius says the high contamination of the one well may have been due to the drilling equipment contacting tritium in the trench while drilling the well through the trench. He said this and several other wells were later pumped to provide a clean statistical base to begin the monitoring.

Interestingly to Lawless, one DOE official told the Monitor the land at the Savannah River plant may have to stay in federal control for perhaps 100 to 200 years due to the presence of the radioactive materials in the ground.

Radioactive material reaching groundwater. It was, according to numerous reports, supposed to take up to 100 years for tritium leaking from the waste burial grounds to reach ground water in a nearby stream. It reached it, however, in just 25 years, both Lawless and the DOE point out. Erosion was blamed and earth was moved in a major project to delay further contact. Contamination of the drinking water was way under EPA standards, however, according to the DOE.

But Lawless contends a much larger contamination has been occurring from radioactive materials seeping through the ground from a large seepage pond used elsewhere on the property.

Problems with tanks for high-level nuclear-waste storage. Corrosion of the new tanks was considered ''absolutely'' unlikely, says Goldberg. But it happened , soon after a report was issued saying it was highly unlikely. Arthur D. Little , a private consulting firm, was called in and advised repair and restricted use of the tanks, according to their report - which was withheld from the federal courts.

But in an internal document, a DOE official overruled ADL and approved unrestricted use of the tanks as recommended by Du Pont.

Among the questions raised by Lawless, the corrosion issue is the only instance this newspaper is aware of where outside suggestions were sought. And the outsider's (ADL) suggestions lost to the insiders' (Du Pont).

''The corrosion issue was not released (to the public),'' says Robert C. Webb , a spokesman at the plant.

Goldberg says he does not know who left the two corrosion reports off the list of documents for the court. ''There was no reason not to have it on a list, '' he says. On the other hand, he says, ''I can't think of a very strong reason for it to be on there.''

The ADL report also mentions, in referring to some old tanks, that ''leaks have been detected in nine of these older tanks. In several tanks these leaks occurred in less than one year of service.''

Changes in the way nuclear waste is to be stored. Lawless criticized a move by the DOE in Washington to raise the level of radioactivity in certain waste (transuranic) that could be handled as low-level waste. He wrote, internally, that a full environmental impact statement should be done, opening the issue to public comment. He lost his fight. Now, Du Pont officials say they are recommending by internal document that the Savannah River Plant go along with the DOE's plan. Department officials here gave no indication that they object to the change or that it is significant enough to be aired for public comment.

Lawless calls it ''a major loosening of the standards.''

Radioactive turtles. When five radioactive turtles were found on the plant property last fall, they had about 1,000 times more radiation in them than a deer found on the property in 1977, according to Lawless. This is ''significant, '' he says, and it raises questions of the source of the contamination and the safety of workers in the contaminated area.

There were internal discussions of the implications but no news release to the public. The discovery may be mentioned in the next yearly news conference at the plant, says Jim Felder, a Du Pont spokesman there.

The turtles came from the radioactive ground seepage basin, says Melvin Sires , the DOE's assistant manager for health, safety, and environment at the plant. They were not dangerous to people, he says.

A news release was issued about a recent nuclear spill at the plant the same morning it happened, Dec. 29. A small amount of cessium accidentally flowed from a waste storage tank area into a drainage ditch and, undetected, into a nearby creek. ''We're still not sure where the failure occurred,'' says Joe Spencer, a Du Pont official. Workers are temporarily being kept out of the area of the tank because of the high level of radiation there as a result of the accident. Contamination of drinking water was far below EPA standards, according to the DOE. A higher level of radioactive spill would have triggered a water diversion system, says a department official.

Next: a mercury spill at Oak Ridge

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