Oak Ridge National Laboratory Nuclear Waste Threatens Tennessee River

Nuclear waste leaked by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is threatening the Tennessee River. The radioactive waste appears to be contaminating groundwater on the other side of Tennessee’s Clinch River.

“Results, to date, have shown intermittent detection of low levels of contaminants that may be associated with past disposal practices at the burial grounds,” John Owsley of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation said in response to KnoxNews’ questions. According to Owsley, the samples reveal the possibility that deep groundwater is moving beneath the river, which may help pollution leave the DOE Oak Ridge reservation, contaminating private properties on the opposite side.

Tennessee began investigating contamination reports from private water wells on the river’s west side several years ago. Studies continue, and are ongoing; early results are not fully conclusive, but have raised concerns, said KnoxNews. Enough concerns, said Owsley, that Tennessee, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Energy are collaborating on a joint strategy to characterize potentially impacted groundwater that leaves the government’s nuclear sites. The report is scheduled to be completed by September 30, 2013, Owsley told KnoxNews.

Meanwhile, the DOE paid the Watts Bar Utility District to extend water lines to residents living across the river and is paying monthly water bills for 41 residents in compliance with recently signed agreements. Residents have been asked to not use private wells due to potential contamination and that pumping activity could affect the ongoing groundwater studies. Impacted residents are on city water, said KnoxNews. Mike Koentop, a spokesman in DOE’s Oak Ridge office, said the DOE is utilizing 23 monitoring wells to evaluate the groundwater; used Recovery Act funds in recent years, drilling some wells for that purpose; and converted some drinking water wells to obtain more data, said KnoxNews.

According to KnoxNews, environmental regulators and the DOE have long tracked groundwater contamination on federal property, identifying a plume of radioactive pollution up to the river’s edge. It remains unknown if the contamination might cross to the other side of the river; however, state officials previously cited research that revealed that one case in Virginia involved contamination that was pulled from under the Shenandoah River into wells on its other side.

KnoxNews also explained that from the 1960s to the 1980s, the laboratory used hydrofracture to pump radioactive wastes into underground shale. Water would be injected to crack the shale; liquid nuclear waste was mixed with grout; and the radioactive mix was pumped into the formation with the intention that the toxic mix would spread, harden, and seal the radioactive chemicals into the shale. The practice, which was found to have been done incorrectly in some cases, was ceased.

Pollutants found in groundwater samples on the west side of the Clinch River included radioactive strontium-90 and technetium-99; some so-called “volatile organic compounds,” such as Trichloroethene (TCE), vinyl chloride, and the heavy metals selenium and arsenic were found in the monitoring wells, said KnoxNews.

As we’ve explained, strontium-90 is a man-made isotope of strontium and a so-called œbone-seeker, a chemical similar to calcium that looks for bone and marrow and is carcinogenic. Children and fetuses are at significant risk from these elements. TCE is an industrial solvent. Acute exposure can lead to adverse neurological effects; high levels can cause nervous system problems, damage to the liver and lungs, abnormal heartbeat, coma, and death. Chronic exposure can cause kidney cancer and nonHodgkin’s lymphoma; one expert linked TCE to Parkinson’s disease.

The EPA states that acute and high vinyl chloride exposure has led to central nervous system effects and that chronic, long-term exposure has resulted in liver damage. Exposure can increase risks of a rare form of liver cancer in humans. The EPA classified vinyl chloride as a Group A, human carcinogen. Selenium can lead to fever; nausea, and liver, kidney, and heart problems.; high doses can cause death. Arsenic can be toxic and carcinogenic. Ongoing arsenic exposure can, at first, lead to gastrointestinal problems and skin discoloration or lesions. Long-term exposure—described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as between five to 20 years—could increase risks for cancers, high blood pressure, diabetes, and reproductive problems.

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