“After DOE has consumed over $200 million (of taxpayers’ money), we still don’t have the basic information necessary to establish whether [radioactive contamination] will reach Oasis Valley in 12 or 500 years.”
–Citizen Alert report, January 2002
Nevadans have been hearing a lot lately about the pros and cons of transporting nuclear waste and storing it at Yucca Mountain, and each side of the issue has recruited scientists to back its position. One side says there’s nothing at all to fear, and the other is saying we’re risking our lives to even consider it. We non-scientists are left wondering whose version of the scientific story to believe (if we believe either side). It seems like scientific experts can be hired to support whatever position a group is backing. In the meanwhile, here’s news on a related topic that bears watching.
Those of you who are new to the state may not know that the Nevada Test Site (NTS) was the location of 100 atmospheric nuclear tests and 828 underground nuclear tests between 1951 and 1992. Those who lived in Las Vegas in the 1950s could see the flash of the above-ground detonations, and local hotels held celebrations marking each event, complete with publicity photos of showgirls dressed in mushroom-cloud costumes. Those were the good old ignorance-is-bliss days, before the people in southwest Utah, who lived downwind from the atmospheric tests, started getting leukemia at alarmingly high levels.
Now that 50 years have passed, government scientists know all about the dangers of radioactivity, so we don’t have to worry any more about living so close to the Test Site… Or do we? Surely our federal government is monitoring whatever radiation is left at NTS, so it can protect us in case there is any danger remaining.
A Las Vegas-based non-profit group called Citizen Alert decided it might be prudent to check up on the government scientists. The organization is made up of people concerned about the possibility of groundwater contamination from underground nuclear testing. They hired technical experts from UNLV to perform an independent analysis of the federal government’s groundwater monitoring program, which is supposed to provide early detection and warning of radioactivity in water in time to prevent harm to people and the environment. Because we do not have the technology to clean up contaminated groundwater, the only way to protect people from it is to make sure we find it early enough to supply an alternate source of water for them (hopefully before they start to glow in the dark). The first Nevada residents in the path of this groundwater live in areas where the water supply comes from wells. If I lived in a small desert town and depended on well water, I think it would be nice to know if it was safe to drink.
“We see the goal of providing an efficient early warning to the public as an urgent matter,” said Kaitlin Backlund, executive director of Citizen Alert. “This is based on the results of three individual scientific studies. The first was a prediction in 1993 by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that contamination from nuclear tests on Pahute Mesa could migrate to Oasis Valley (near Beatty) in less than 20 years. That study prompted the Department of Energy (DOE) to perform its own contaminant migration study, connected with its Regional Groundwater Model in 1996, which predicted a similar result. Finally, in 2001, an independent scientist predicted much higher migration speeds than are usually predicted in the same aquifer.” The Pahute Mesa area was the site of 82 underground nuclear detonations, which produced a total yield of about 20 megatons (over 1,000 times more than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima). The distance between one of these large blasts (Tybo) and Oasis Valley is less than 17 miles.
“The seven NTS on-site monitoring network wells in place in Pahute Mesa have a very low chance of ever detecting any contamination, since they are not located in the most likely pathways of the contaminant plumes, according to current estimate of groundwater flow paths,” stated the report. This reminds me of the old joke about the man who was looking for a lost coin in the middle of the street. He had actually lost it in his basement, but he was looking in the street “because the light was better there.” DOE has produced two reports on its efforts to detect groundwater contamination. “Both were peer-reviewed by external panels of high quality experts and were found to be severely flawed,” noted the Citizen Alert report.
The report concluded with a recommendation that DOE choose one of the holes where a bomb was detonated, and drill test wells in the most likely path of the underground water flow. Testing where the contamination is, measuring it and recording how it spreads makes more sense than waiting for it to show it in our morning coffee. For more information on this issue, or for a full copy of the report, go to the Citizen Alert Web site, citizenalert.org.