On-going nuclear contamination from USA & ex-USSR weapons and sites
by Francis Macy
In January, 1992, Presidents Bush and Yeltsin met at Camp David and declared peace: the end of the Cold War. With that welcome development, the threat of nuclear holocaust has declined. Threat of nuclear contamination, however, is growing.
The Cold War has left a legacy in the United States and in the former Soviet Union of uranium mining sites, nuclear weapons production sites and weapons testing sites that are the most dangerously toxic territories on the surface of the Earth. Governments have recently revealed that the radioactivity on these sites is not contained, but is migrating off the sites through the air, the soil, and water systems.
"It is not feasible to remove
all radioactive materials
--where could we send them?
The U.S. Congress received a report from its Office of Technology Assessment in 1991 on "The Environmental Legacy of Nuclear Arms Production" which cites "evidence that air, groundwater, surface water, sediments and soil, as well as vegetation and wildlife, have been contaminated at most, if not all, of the Department of Energy nuclear weapons sites." Radioactivity was found in such mobile subjects as rivers, dust, tumbleweed turtles, coyotes, frogs, geese, and shellfish, not to mention people.
The extent to which this is true on both sides of the former Iron Curtain is made vivid to me through my environmental exchange work between the U.S. and Russia, and is dramatized at two military production sites: Hanford, USA, and Chelyabinsk, Russia.
In February, 1992, I visited America's oldest and largest nuclear weapons production site, the Hanford Reservation of the Department of Energy, in the desert of eastern Washington. Radioactive and chemically hazardous waste has been accumulating at Hanford since 1943, and today over half our defense-related waste is to be found on the 600 square mile site bordered by the Columbia River. Rick Wojtasek, Manager of Restoration for DOE contractor Westinghouse, told us that it would cost over $30 billion dollars over 30 years to contain the contamination.
"It is not feasible to remove all radioactive materials--where could we send them? How could we transport them safely? We must manage and contain what's left virtually forever." Wojtasek suggested the local Yakima tribe of Native Americans as the most reliable ones to "do post-closure monitoring."
During years of hot war
and cold war these governments
have kept the public ignorant
of facts and dangers to their health . . .
Until 1983, liquid plutonium and tritium was pumped into unlined pits or "cribs" for percolation through the soil. Some was even piped directly to the groundwater 200 feet below. DOE reports (September 1991) that "some contamination from the wastes is moving through the soil toward the groundwater leading to the Columbia River. . . . The full extent of contamination isn't known yet, but we know that about 200 square miles of groundwater are contaminated. In most cases, however, the contamination is below drinking water standards."
The biggest danger is the "tank farm". Between 1944 and 1980, liquid waste with radioactive and chemically toxic substances were pumped into underground tanks holding up to one million gallons each. Of the 149 single-shell tanks, says the DOE, "probably as many as half may have leaked 750,000 gallons of waste into the nearby soil including low-level, high-level, hazardous or plutonium-contaminated "salt cake" and sludge." Radioactive material has been found in the Columbia River collecting at dams near Hanford and several hundred miles away at the mouth of the river in water and in fish.
"The academicians of those times
knew as much about the atom
[and radioactive waste]
as ninth-graders do today."
Explosion would cause the widest off-site contamination, and this is a real danger. The tank contents are generating hydrogen and great heat--an explosive mixture. One tank, number 101, is bubbling ominously, so efforts to remove tank contents have been halted for fear of further destabilizing them. "We don't know what's in them, and we don't know how to empty them safely," said Westinghouse's Wojtasek. He estimated tank life at 30 to 50 years.
Proof of the devastation caused by the explosion of nuclear waste is found in Russia. In 1957, a radioactive storage tank exploded at Kyshtym on the largest Soviet military production site, Mayak, near Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains. Twenty million curies of radioactivity were thrown into the sky. Ten thousand local residents were evacuated, but many more, an estimated 250,000 to 400,000 were exposed to dangerous levels of radioactivity. This was the world's worst nuclear accident until Chernobyl in 1986 and in 1989 the Soviet government finally admitted that it had occurred.
Yet more radioactivity has contaminated the soil and water around the site in Russia as a result of careless dumping. From 1947 until 1952 or 1954, water was used from the Techa River to cool the reactors at Mayak and returned to the river where, in the words of the Mayak chief engineer, "We simply did not know that the radioactivity would be swallowed up by the bottom silt, that it would bind up and concentrate two million curies of radioactivity in the upper course of the river. The academicians of those times knew as much about the atom as ninth-graders do today." After residents showed signs of radiation illness, twenty villages were evacuated and razed along the river.
Nuclear waste was also dumped by Mayak into Lake Karachai which now contains 120 million curies of radioactivity--enough to kill a person standing on the shore within an hour. In the dry summer of 1967, winds blew radioactive dust from the lake shore over 27,000 square kilometers. Extensive contaminating also occurs through rains and flooding, and through seepage to the water table below.
"Comrades, there is no other such radiation-soiled and explosive situation on our globe," said the head of the local government to his region's elected deputies in December. They are organizing a conference in May 1992 on The Ecological Consequences of the Nuclear Complex in the Southern Urals to which I will lead a delegation of American activists and experts on radioactive waste.
Nuclear contamination has made
large territories uninhabitable
and endangered residents
of surrounding regions.
Both governments have a fifty-year record of recklessly releasing radioactive materials into the air, the soil and the water systems. The nuclear contamination has made large territories uninhabitable and endangered residents of surrounding regions. During years of hot war and cold war these governments have kept the public ignorant of facts and dangers to their health and have seriously exposed employees of military weapons complexes.
Now that the Cold War is over there is no more excuse for sacrificing human and other life forms for so called "national security." Citizens must now pressure their governments and join with each other to contain for centuries the nuclear contamination at weapons complexes--the legacy of the Cold War.
Francis Macy is a Soviet specialist who organizes exchanges of environmental activists and specialists, particularly in the area of nuclear contamination. He has visited the former Soviet Union over 30 times since 1961 and hosted Soviet delegations in the United States. He is a founding member of the Nuclear Guardianship Project.