Weapons Plant Survey Lists 155 Polluted Sites

Times Staff Writer

Energy Department officials said Wednesday that a nationwide survey of pollution at nuclear weapons facilities has revealed 155 separate problems of environmental contamination, most of them involving toxic industrial chemicals, not radiation.

Waste disposal sites at two weapons facilities in Colorado and Texas were ranked as posing the most serious potential threats to public health, in both cases from organic chemicals leaching into local ground water.

The remaining 153 contamination sites--12 of them in Northern California at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the adjacent Sandia Livermore facility--were said to be of “secondary” concern or to hold no potential at all for harm to the general public.

The agency noted that federal and state officials reached agreement two years ago on a program of remedial action at the California sites.


No ‘Immediate Threat’

A report summarizing the preliminary findings of the survey notes that no instance of environmental contamination found so far appears to pose an “immediate threat to human health” or a “clear and present danger” to public safety that would justify shutting a weapons facility.

Officials said that the survey, which will not be completed until late next year, represents the government’s first systematic effort to catalogue and assign priorities to environmental problems posed by its aging complex of nuclear weapons production and research facilities across the nation.

Energy Secretary John S. Herrington has said that the nation faces expenses exceeding $150 billion to dispose of accumulated radioactive wastes, to clean up contaminated sites and to modernize a nuclear weapons production complex whose facilities date to the early 1950s.


“Clearly we don’t have enough money or enough people to correct all of the problems at the same time,” Raymond Berube, deputy assistant energy secretary for the environment, said in an interview. “This survey will help us plan on a sound and rational basis.”

Berube said that none of the pollution problems catalogued thus far is known to constitute a current threat to public health but that several will become threats unless corrected. A preliminary report of the survey covers only 16 of the 35 weapons facilities now under study, but he said that these include what department officials believe are the most pressing pollution problems.

“I’m not trying to diminish the seriousness of these problems,” Berube said in noting that the department has no evidence of adverse effects on the public. “We have to deal with them before they become a real danger to public health.”

The survey’s preliminary findings, however, are not likely to correspond with public perceptions of dangers posed by the weapons complex, where recent revelations of radiation leaks have prompted widespread fears of cancer and other illnesses.


Despite the large number of pollution problems listed in the report, the department found only two that rated the “most concern,” with serious potential to harm public health. These are the Rocky Flats plutonium processing plant near Denver and the Pantex plant near Amarillo, Tex., where nuclear weapons undergo final assembly.

In both cases, prolonged dumping of industrial chemicals, not radiation releases, is involved.

Rocky Flats has been partly closed since a plutonium leak inside one of its major laboratories last fall. Traces of radioactive plutonium in the soil around the 6,500-acre facility, 21 miles north of Denver, long have been a focus of concern among local environmental activists, but the Energy Department ranked this contamination to be of “secondary” concern “because of the low soil concentrations involved.”

A more serious hazard, the agency contends, is posed by a variety of toxic organic solvents used at the plant, including tetrachloroethylene, that have leached into streams and ground water used to water livestock and irrigate crops. The Energy Department report said a 1986 agreement with the Colorado Department of Public Health calls for a study of ways to mitigate this contamination.


Pollution at the Pantex assembly plant is said to consist of seven organic chemicals, including dimethylforamide dumped in an unlined waste pit from 1954 to 1980 that could eventually leach into ground water serving nearby communities.

Other contaminants at the plant include cyanide, hexavalent chromium and uranium, but the report said that these are of “secondary” concern because they lack an immediate pathway to public waterways.

Using a computer model that assigned relative hazards on a scale from zero to 10, the department survey ranked Rocky Flats and Pantex as 9 and 8 respectively. Hazards ranked as 6 or 7 on the scale were deemed of “secondary” priority, while 1 to 5 were said to be of “tertiary” concern and zero marked those sites considered to pose no potential risk to human health.

On this scale, the agency rated no higher than a 6 the widely publicized uranium pollution released over many years from its Feed Materials Production Center at Fernald, Ohio, where some local residents have blamed a number of cancer cases on the pollution. The report noted that while uranium is only mildly radioactive, it can be as toxic as any heavy metal in large amounts.


By contrast, the computer model assigned a higher level of concern--7 on the scale of 10--to ground water contamination at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco, reflecting its potential risk to nearby populations.

The department report said that the most contamination at Livermore consisted of leaks of several organic chemicals, chiefly carbon tetrachloride, a volatile and toxic solvent, which have percolated into nearby ground water.

In addition, the agency said, 17,000 gallons of gasoline that leaked from an underground storage tank at the laboratory in 1979 and 45,000 gallons of diesel fuel from a 1975 leak have also contaminated local ground water.

The Energy Department said that California state officials and the federal Environmental Protection Agency are negotiating a cleanup program and that the laboratory “has been meeting a strict schedule” of interim deadlines for remedial action set by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.


At the agency’s Savannah River Production complex in South Carolina, where all three tritium and plutonium production reactors are closed for safety improvements and installation of new management, the survey said that 25,030 curies of radioactive tritium--a radioactive form of hydrogen gas used in nuclear weapons--were released in 1985, with a quarter of the gas discharged directly to streams.

The plant plans to increase its stream discharges of tritium this year, the agency said, but it maintained that tritium levels in the Savannah River would nevertheless remain “well below” limits set by the EPA.

In a related development, an Energy Department official said the agency still expected to restart the K-reactor at Savannah River next summer, even though a complex program of safety improvements is unlikely to be completed until the end of 1989. The reactor is needed to produce tritium, which must be replenished periodically in nuclear weapons.

The official, who asked not to be identified, said it is hoped that residual safety concerns can be satisfied by running the reactor at low power. When it was shut last April for safety improvements, the K-reactor was running at only 50% of maximum power.


In a letter to Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) on Wednesday, Deputy Energy Secretary Joseph Salgado said that the department has singled out several “near-term measures that will provide the necessary margins of safety” for the reactor’s operation, including new administrative controls over reactor operations and “power level reductions.”

Agency officials confirmed that the White House had turned down a request for an additional $200 million to complete safety improvements on the three reactors for fiscal 1989 and said that the department is now looking elsewhere in its budget for the money.

A spokesman, however, offered assurances that the money would not come from other safety-related programs.

“It is not our intention,” the spokesman, Douglas Elmets, said, “to take it from environment, safety or health. These are high-priority programs.”