Monitoring of Radioactivity in Nevada Groundwater Flawed

LAS VEGAS, Nevada, January 18, 2002 (ENS) - The Department of Energy (DOE) is not doing enough to detect radioactivity in groundwater near the Nevada Test Site, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, an environmental group charged today.

The seven on-site monitoring network wells in place in Pahute Mesa have a low probability of detecting contamination since they are not located in the most likely pathways of the contaminant plumes says a technical report commissioned by Citizen Alert.

The Nevada Test Site was the location of 100 atmospheric nuclear tests, and 828 underground nuclear tests between 1951 and 1992 that have contaminated Nevada with radioactivity.

Citizen Alert has been concerned for years about the possibility of groundwater contamination as a result of underground nuclear testing, says nuclear issues coordinator for the grassroots group, Kalynda Tilges.


Underground nuclear tests leave subsidence craters like these at the Nevada Test Site. 828 underground nuclear tests, including 24 with the UK, were conducted at the site between 1951 and 1992. (Photo courtesy The Brookings Institution)
Citizen Alert says the DOE has spent over $200 million of taxpayer money and still does not have the basic information necessary to establish whether radioactive contamination will reach Oasis Valley in 12 or 500 years, both predictions that have been made in the past.

"Because technology does not exist in the year 2002 to clean up contaminated groundwater, protection means timely detection of contamination that could produce risk to off-site citizens, and subsequently, supplying an alternate source of water for them," Tilges said. "Our goal was to evaluate the DOE's claim that it is protecting the public from groundwater contamination caused by underground nuclear testing on the Nevada Test Site."

With financial help from a grant from the Citizen's Monitoring and Technical Assessment Fund, Citizen Alert hired technical experts to perform an independent analysis of the effectiveness of the Department of Energy's (DOE) groundwater monitoring program of the northwestern section of the Nevada Test Site. The study looked at the government's ability to provide early detection and warning of radioactivity in water in time to prevent harm to people and the environment.

In a press conference with Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, a Democrat, Citizen Alert executive director Kaitlin Backlund said, "The DOE has spent over $200 million of taxpayer money and still does not have the basic information necessary to establish whether contaminated groundwater is migrating outside the boundaries of the Nevada Test Site."

Berkley said, "This new report will bolster my efforts to clean up the test site and implement an effective early warning system for radioactive contamination. It is critically important to fine tune our environmental cleanup methods, and invest in an adequate monitoring system before there's a crisis - not after!"

Native Shoshone representative Ian Zabarte explained why the area known as the Nevada Test Site is still part of Newe Segobia, traditional Shoshone land according to the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863 and how this project affects Native Americans in the area.

"The Western Shoshone have supported Citizen Alert's work for over 20 years all the way back to the MX missile proposal," he said. "We continue to support Citizen Alert on this issue which we feel is of vital concern to the Shoshone people and the citizens of Nevada."

This report addresses the specific question of whether citizens living near the periphery of the Nevada Test Site are being protected from radioactive groundwater contamination that may be migrating towards them from the underground tests.

Citizen Alert's main concern is that the present strategy being executed by the Underground Testing Area program "presently is not plausible or even useful and is dangerous in that it is delaying the creation of a long term groundwater early warning monitoring network."

"Since contaminants have been migrating for over 40 years, it does not make sense to place an early warning monitoring system in the year 2030 as the DOE now plans," Tilges said.

The report focuses on the Pahute Mesa area because it was the host to 82 underground nuclear detonations which produced a total yield of about 20 megatons - over 1,000 times more yield than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima - and which left 74 million curies of radiation in the ground below the water table, said Citizen Alert.

Some of the Pahute Mesa detonations were among the most powerful tested at the Nevada Test Site and all were detonated closer to off-site communities than from any other tests on the site. For example, the distance between one large shot and Oasis Valley is less than 17 miles.

The analysis found that none of the possible 260 plumes migrating in the groundwater from the nuclear tests has ever been found and studied. No one knows the plumes' constituents, nor the whereabouts of the over 130 million curies of radiation released into the environment, said Citizen Alert.

Some of the plumes may have merged and created even larger and more complex plumes, the study suggests. "If we had better knowledge of the plumes and local groundwater flow directions, the design of a system to find such huge targets, where the exact locations of the detonations are well known, should not be difficult, even using a small fraction of the millions of dollars spent by DOE so far," said Tilges.

Citizen Alert is asking that the Department of Energy recognize that its present Underground Testing Area strategy has not produced adequate information, and renegotiate with Nevada Department of Environmental Protection (NDEP) for a new strategy.

That new strategy would begin with the selection of one large detonation cavity on Pahute Mesa in an area having the highest density of local hydrological data. The DOE would study all aspects of the one plume; migration speeds and directions, their physical make-up, concentration, dimensions and transport mechanisms.

After a satisfactory early warning monitoring system for the Pahute Mesa contamination is in place, Citizen Alert suggests, the DOE could decide which is the next most threatened area and turn its resources to that area.

DOE officials were not immediately available for comment.