Toxic legacy of the Cold War


Amid the family farms and rolling terrain of southern Ohio, one hill stands out for its precise geometry.

The 65-foot-high mound stretching more than half a mile dominates a tract of northern hardwoods, prairie grasses and swampy ponds, known as the Fernald Preserve.

Contrary to appearances, there is nothing natural here. The high ground is filled with radioactive debris, scooped from the soil around a former uranium foundry that produced crucial parts for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.


A $4.4-billion cleanup transformed Fernald from a dangerously contaminated factory complex into an environmental showcase. But it is “clean” only by the terms of a legal agreement. Its soils contain many times the natural amounts of radioactivity, and a plume of tainted water extends underground about a mile.

Nobody can ever safely live here, federal scientists say, and the site will have to be closely monitored essentially forever.

Fernald is part of the toxic legacy of the Cold War, one component in a vast complex of research labs, raw material mills, weapons production plants and other facilities that once supplied the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Today, these sites pose a staggering political, environmental and economic challenge. They harbor wastes so toxic that the best cleanups, such as the eight-year effort at Fernald, can do no more than contain the danger. Cleaning the properties enough that people could live and work on them again is either unaffordable or impossible.

The radioactive byproducts entombed at places like Fernald will remain hazardous for thousands of years. So today’s scientists and engineers must devise remediation measures that will not only protect people today but last longer than any empire has endured -- all at a price society is willing to pay.

“We are faced with a mess, and you have to find some sort of a balance,” said Victor Gilinsky, a nuclear waste expert and former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “There are no easy decisions.”

The nationwide effort to clean up the Cold War nuclear weapons complex began two decades ago and so far has cost more than $100 billion. The cost is expected to total $330 billion over the next three to five decades. More than 100 sites have been officially cleaned up. Many of them have been turned into industrial parks or nature preserves or put to other limited uses under Energy Department supervision.

Nearly two dozen other sites still await cleanup. The Obama administration is using money from the economic stimulus package to add $6 billion to the effort over the next three years.

Collectively, the former nuclear facilities represent a stunning loss of natural resources and economic opportunity. Millions of gallons of radioactive sludges linger in underground tanks. Dozens of radioactive or toxic groundwater plumes are migrating underground in Washington, Idaho, South Carolina, Ohio and Tennessee, as well as California.

In Nevada, federal scientists are monitoring a vast sea of radioactive groundwater, contaminated by hundreds of underground nuclear tests, to make sure it does not encroach on populated areas or drinking-water supplies.

“New members of Congress come in and say, ‘Oh, my God, look at the scale of this mess,’ ” said Geoffrey Fettus, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a frequent litigant against the Energy Department. “This cleanup is gruesomely complicated.”

The results of a cleanup -- with enough will and money -- can be impressive.

The site of the former Fernald Feed Materials Production Center has evolved into a wildlife preserve covered with flowers. Nearly 200 species of birds have flocked to the site: dark-eyed juncos, hairy woodpeckers and flocks of mallards paddling across more than a dozen ponds.

The 1,050-acre site has a visitors’ center with a small museum that recounts the history of the plant. About 9,000 visitors from churches, civic groups and schools are expected this year.

The plant, which opened in 1951 and was operated by the National Lead Co. of Ohio, manufactured uranium rods used to make plutonium for nuclear weapons.

In the mid-1980s, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency discovered an environmental disaster at the site.

Leaking silos were belching radon gas. A leaky dust collector had spewed uranium powder into the air. Rain running off the plant had contaminated the Great Miami Aquifer, an underground body of water that extends from Cincinnati to Dayton.

On the day the plant was shut in 1989, pipes and tanks were left full of waste.

The Ohio EPA estimated that 340 tons of uranium had been released. In a series of lawsuits against the Energy Department, the state of Ohio won about $14 million for environmental damage; local residents won $78 million for emotional distress and loss of property values; and workers won roughly $20 million for health and safety claims.

Lisa Crawford, who has lived in the area her entire life, became involved in 1985. That’s when she discovered that the well water flowing through the taps in her house, across the street from the plant, contained uranium at levels 180 times the federal safety standard. She moved out later that year with her husband and their son.

Neighbors and environmentalists organized to push for a cleanup, but after years of study came to realize that there was no perfect solution.

They faced a choice: Live with a certain level of contamination or push for a comprehensive cleanup with no guarantee of success and a $50-billion price tag.

“In the 1990s, there came a time when we had to say, ‘OK, we have studied this to death,’ ” Crawford said.

The key to the cleanup was a compromise that left the vast majority of contaminated material on the site. The compromise hinged on a legal agreement with the Energy Department that relaxed the definition of “clean” and limited future uses of the property.

That trade-off underlies virtually every cleanup and has helped to reduce costs and shorten cleanup times.

“Are we totally cleaned up? No,” Crawford said. “Could we have gotten a better cleanup? No. But we are comfortable with what we have.”

Three million cubic yards of low-level radioactive waste was left in the mound that dominates the site. It is actually a highly engineered disposal facility.

The production center’s buildings were demolished, and about 6 inches of topsoil was scraped from the center of the site. The building debris and the topsoil were bulldozed into the 65-foot-high mound. The contaminated material is encapsulated by thick layers of impermeable clay and fabric liners to prevent rain from seeping in. A complex network of piping under the landfill monitors for leakage.

The system is supposed to prevent radioactive water from leeching into the ground for the next 200 to 1,000 years, said Johnny Reising, who was the Energy Department’s cleanup chief at the site.

“Can I speak for 1,000 years into the future? No,” said Reising, now retired. “You can’t make it 100% safe. But you can make it compliant with all the requirements.”

Only the most highly radioactive material, consisting of high-purity former Belgian Congo uranium ore and tailings, was hauled away. It was deemed too dangerous to leave in the rainy Ohio climate. Ultimately, it was mixed with cement and cast in 3,776 steel containers that were sent to a privately owned dump in west Texas.

The Fernald cleanup was completed in 2006. It reduced uranium in the soil outside the plant to no more than 82 parts per million -- about 20 times greater than the naturally occurring level in Ohio.

Groundwater will be pumped and treated until 2026, bringing the contamination below the federal standard of 30 parts per billion, but well above the natural level.

“The area is unacceptable for housing,” said Jim Seric, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency manager who oversaw the cleanup. “It is excellent for wildlife viewing.”

The Energy Department is reducing its standards for nuclear-site cleanups, allowing ever more waste to be left in place, say critics, including Fettus. For example, the department used complex regulatory maneuvers, as well as a change to federal law in 2004, to reclassify highly radioactive waste at the Savannah River weapons plant in South Carolina so that dangerous residues can remain on site, entombed in concrete in underground tanks.

Inez Triay, the Obama administration’s newly appointed cleanup chief, rejects criticism that the program is relaxing its standards and failing to protect the environment.

Triay, a chemist who has spent her career in the Energy Department’s cleanup program, said that in some cases it is technically impossible to remove every last bit of waste from underground tanks and that leaving a small amount encased in concrete is “a completely appropriate thing to do.”

Even after a cleanup, the job is not finished. An Energy Department agency, the Office of Legacy Management, has been created to monitor the sites. A warehouse in West Virginia, which is nearly completed, will hold millions of records in perpetuity, detailing how the cleanups were conducted and where the toxins are buried.

Among the files will be a hefty section on Fernald.

The records will note the location of the radioactive mound. They will show how the basements of the former manufacturing buildings became storage ponds and how for hundreds and possibly thousands of years workers will have to trap groundhogs so they don’t burrow through the barriers keeping radioactive waste from leaching into groundwater.

“I worry about people forgetting about this site,” said Crawford, who sometimes goes for a stroll around the preserve. “It is our job now to make future generations know what happened here.”