Plutonium in Erwin related to fallout from bomb tests?

By Kathy Helms-Hughes


   How did "trace" quantities of plutonium show up in offsite groundwater monitoring wells near Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin?
   Tony Treadway, public relations representative for NFS, said, "You know, if you really get into it, any well that you dig anywhere is going to have background levels of plutonium, based on, believe it or not, bomb tests."
   When asked to explain, Treadway said offsite plutonium could be the result of fallout associated with nuclear testing in Nevada in the 1960s.
   Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D., president for the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md., disagrees with the theory.
   "First: Plutonium-238 is not a major component of fallout. The isotopes in fallout are mainly Plutonium-239 and Plutonium-240 with some Plutonium-241. So high readings of Plutonium-238 in water are curious."
   After reviewing NFS data, Makhijani said, "I would consider all of the measurements worthy of follow-up ..."
   Readings for Plutonium-239/240 also appear to be on the high side, he said.
   "I would question whether this is due to fallout. It is possible that these are hot spots, but if this is all fallout, then they are pretty serious hot spots and worthy of attention by the government in their own right. The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control should address the issue. I think the burden of proof should be on the company to show its fallout."
   Makhijani said the 1950s and 1960s typically were times of extremely bad waste management. "In many places the plutonium-containing wastes were dumped in cardboard boxes and shallow ditches," he said, and questioned whether plutonium wastes might have been dumped in NFS burial grounds.
   "I think they ought not to make cavalier dismissal of this data as being from fallout," he said.
   Leo Romanowski of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta said he had not heard of plutonium contamination at other facilities in the region. However, he said, "Most people aren't going to be measuring for it. If you don't measure for it, you can always say it's not there."
   One criticism of NFS analyses cited by environmental sources is that many of the samples for plutonium are filtered. According to a 1998 article in Nature magazine entitled "Plutonium Thumbs a Ride," author David Kestenbaum said researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico showed that plutonium sometimes hitches a ride on invisibly small bits of rock or clay in underground water. When the particles were filtered out, they contained almost all of the radioactive material.
   According to regulatory authorities, NFS conducts its own sampling, which is then reviewed by the appropriate agency. Neither NFS's Treadway, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, nor Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation knew the depth of NFS offsite monitoring wells or approximate depth to groundwater. Of those overseeing the facility, EPA appeared the most knowledgeable.
   A series of questions was submitted to NFS and each of its overseers: Specifically, they were asked whether the plume of groundwater contamination stops at the road which runs through the industrial park adjacent to NFS, since monitoring wells do not go beyond it; whether attempts had been made to drill farther down when sampling results showed higher levels of contaminants in deeper wells; why many sampling results were "estimated"; why some samples for radionuclides were filtered; and why 1994 data which showed an elevated level for technetium-99 was dismissed as a fluke.
   Questions submitted to NFS were boiled down into an official response, which failed to answer specifics. It stated, in part:
   "NFS began collecting groundwater characterization data on its site in the late 1980s. Results from evaluating that data led NFS to install additional onsite monitoring wells in the 1990s and, in December 1996, offsite wells.
   "With regard to plutonium, only trace amounts of this element have been observed in well samples, and this has occurred both in the 'background' wells (upgradient from and not related to NFS) as well as in the downgradient off-site wells. The concentrations observed are at essentially background levels.
   "... There is no evidence that NFS is contributing to the plutonium in the groundwater from the NFS facility, nor does the groundwater pose any threat to health or the environment. Groundwater at and near the NFS facility is not used for drinking water or any other purpose.
   "NFS regularly samples surface water in the vicinity of its plant, including the Nolichucky River, and the quality of the water meets the applicable standards. ... It is irresponsible to falsely raise the phantom of even a potential threat to drinking water."