Radioactive and Hazardous Wastes Threaten Largest Aquifer in Western U.S., Report Says
A report released this week by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (or IEER) says that the Snake River Plain Aquifer, the largest unified aquifer in the western United States, is in grave danger due to years of heavy polluting by the nearby Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (or INEEL).
IEER's report states that, according to U.S. government data, more than one metric ton of plutonium was dumped into shallow trenches around the INEEL site, which is located on top of the aquifer. This plutonium was packaged in little more than cardboard and wooden boxes and 55-gallon drums. Dr. Arjun Makhijani, principle author of the report and President of IEER, said, "These contaminants pose a serious threat to the lifeblood of the region..."
Plutonium, among other radionuclides and chemical pollutants, has been detected in the aquifer and its vadose zone since the 1970s. The vadose zone is the unsaturated area between the surface of the ground and the aquifer. Pollutants in the vadose zone are prime for migration into the aquifer.
The Snake River Plain Aquifer provides drinking water for more than 200,000 people, and is used to irrigate crops distributed throughout the U.S., and exported to Mexico, Japan and Canada. The aquifer is also crucial to Idaho's trout farming industry, which provides 75% of the commercial trout consumed in America. Beatrice Brailsford, of the Snake River Alliance, said, "Severe contamination of the Snake River Plain aquifer would have serious consequences for the health of the people and economy of Idaho."
Among IEER's concerns is that, if all chemical and radioactive contaminants are taken into account, some of the drinking water wells on INEEL property are above safe drinking water levels. Also, the levels of plutonium located in trenches around INEEL, enough to build more than 200 nuclear weapons, will be vulnerable to mining should the Department of Energy (or DOE) lose control of the site. Furthermore, many of the contaminants currently in the vadose zone of the Snake River Plain Aquifer present a very long-term threat to the aquifer. The main radioactive contaminants in the vadose zone are americium, plutonium, and iodine, which are long-lived isotopes. Their increased half-lives give them plenty of time to seep into the aquifer, causing irreversible damage.
IEER recommends discontinuation of dumping into pits, trenches and ponds on the INEEL site; recovery and stabilization of buried wastes; solidification of liquid waste and proper storage of the resultant solid waste; and remediation of the vadose zone. IEER is also recommending thorough and comprehensive groundwater monitoring; cleanup to ALARA (or "As Low As Reasonably Achievable") guidelines, as recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency; and thorough and frank discussion of the waste measurements and their analyses. IEER is hoping that the cleanup of the Snake River Plain Aquifer and vadose zone will set a precedent for future cleanups across the DOE complex.
As Mr. Makhijani says, "This ...shows that the bill for nuclear weapons production in terms of environmental and resource costs is far from being paid. The present course is likely to foist these costs on future generations in the worst way - by depriving them of clean water."
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