Radioactive Leaks

Even among the strongest backers of the commercial nuclear power program in this country, the problem of how to store the hot radioactive wastes is acknow­ledged as unsolved and potentially very dangerous.

These radioactive wastes, many of which will remain lethally active for tens of thousands of years, are largely deposited in tanks at several central storage facilities. One of these storage depots is located at Richland, Washington and is operated for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) by the Atlantic Richfield corporation. Since World War II, wastes from nuclear armament production, and more recently, from its nuclear power plants have accumulated there.

On June 8, a major leak of radioactivity from tank 106T at the Richland facility was discovered. AEC officials acknowledged five days later that 115,000 gallons of radioactive waste had leaked from the 400,000 gallons stored in this tank into the soil from the bottom of the tank. At that time, according to AEC engineer, Dr. J.W. Pollock, the distance between tank 106T, which bottomed 50 feet underground, and the groundwater level below it was not specifically known.
Both Dr. Pollock and Alex Fremling of the AEC’s Richland operations office, who is in charge of the investigation of this large leak, have stated that the AEC does not yet know how far into the ground the released radioactive materials have traveled. As has become all to customary, the AEC assures the public that no threat of contamination exists but cannot or refuses to answer critical questions.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), led by Professor Henry Kendall of MIT, is trying to question AEC officials to determine the full range of deficiencies in the waste monitoring procedures at Richland. They have learned that subsequent to thediscovery of the leak, the AEC asked Atlantic Richfield for “50 or 60” documents but the agency would not disclose the nature of these documents. The scientists also learned that the AEC receives the monitoring reports from its contractor not as taken but only on a quarterly basis, that no automatic alarm system was installed in tank 106T to repor liquid level drop and that AEC procedures were probably violated.
Together with the UCS, I have requested replies from the AEC to a number of questions relating to the age and quality of the storage tanks, the extent of other leaks at the Commission’s storage waste facilities, the precise nature of the wastes leaked and the ways by which these wastes can be detected and recovered from the earth.
Atomic Energy Commission spokesmen, such as Dr. F.R. Pittman, have agreed with critics of the nuclear power program that no technically or economically acceptable method for long-term waste disposal is yet available. Moreover, no scientist holds out much hope that these wastes can be detoxified–certainly not in the next several generations. Serious genetic damage, various kinds of cancers and, depending on the massiveness of the dose, fairly sudden fatalities, can occur from exposure to these virulent wastes. For the most part, the potential longer range damage of this silent violence to present and future generations lulls people into a false sense of security. By the time the risks materialize into their human tragedies, it will be too late to do much about them.
As more people learn more about the intractable radioactive waste problem and other risks and costs of the nuclear power plant program, more basic questions are being asked. Instead of continuing to pour billions of taxpayers’ and consumers’ monies into nuclear fission plants, when will the Congress and the White House begin strong development programs for other forms of energy–from the sun, from geothermal sources, from the wind, from the gasification of coal, etc.–and for ways to reduce the profligate inefficiency of the present energy uses?

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