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US Poison in the Vadose Zone

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(October 19, 2001) Waste from 1950's and 1960's nuclear weapons production, including more than one ton of plutonium, endangers the Snake River Plain aquifer, the largest in the western US, according to a new report. Much of this waste is in the vadose zone (an unsaturated region of rock and soil located beneath the land surface and above the water table) but it is migrating towards the aquifer much faster than anticipated, and some of the waste is already in the aquifer.

(556.5326) IEER - Nuclear waste dumped at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) is polluting the Snake River Plain aquifer, the primary source of drinking water for 200,000 people, according to a new report.

Poison in the Vadose Zone: An examination of the threats to the Snake River Plain aquifer from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), warns that this important water resource faces further contamination from the migration of long-lived radionuclides and hazardous chemicals from nuclear weapons production wastes buried at the site. The Snake River Plain aquifer is the largest unified aquifer in the western United States and the most important underground water resource in the northwestern US. Poison in the Vadose Zone is the first report to comprehensively compile and analyze the available data on the threat posed by plutonium and other transuranic materials to the Snake River Plain aquifer.

"For fifty years, nuclear weapons production has resulted in large quantities of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste being injected directly into the aquifer, discharged into surface ponds, or dumped into shallow pits and trenches," said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, principal author of the report and president of IEER. "These contaminants pose a serious threat to the lifeblood of the region, the Snake River Plain aquifer."

According to the report, official US government data indicate that more than one metric ton of plutonium, packaged in nothing more than cardboard boxes, wooden boxes, or 55 gallon drums, was dumped into shallow trenches on the site in the 1950s and 1960s. Rain, snow, and occasional flooding of the trenches have already caused migration of some radioactive and hazardous materials towards, and in some cases into, the aquifer. Evidence has existed for more than 25 years that these long-lived radionuclides are migrating through the vadose zone to the aquifer much faster than anticipated.

"Sound scientific work indicating threats to the Snake River Plain aquifer has long been ignored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)," stated Michele Boyd, co-author of the report and IEER's global outreach coordinator. "Plutonium and americium have been detected in the vadose zone, which is the unsaturated area between the ground surface and the aquifer, and in the aquifer since the 1970s. Plutonium is moving through the vadose zone to the aquifer thousands of times faster than assumed by a wait-and-see policy that dominates DOE's approach to clean-up of these dumps."

While the threat to the Snake River Plain aquifer from the buried wastes increases, the DOE has focused on transporting "stored" transuranic wastes, which are kept in relatively secure conditions indoors at INEEL, to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.


Six demolition workers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory were sprayed with radioactive dust when a gust of wind blew the dust outside of a roped-off "contamination zone" on 8 October. The incident occurred while demolishing the Old Hydrofracture Site, a laboratory where experiments had been carried out on injecting nuclear waste into the ground for disposal. A whole body count is being carried out to determine the doses received by the workers.
KnoxNews, 10 October 2001

"Insufficient resources are being devoted to cleaning up of the buried transuranic wastes at INEEL," said Gary Richardson, Executive Director of the Snake River Alliance, a nuclear watchdog group of INEEL. "The DOE is essentially playing a shell game by moving wastes from INEEL to WIPP so that more waste can be shipped to INEEL. The DOE's Environmental Management Program has wasted enormous sums of money on poorly designed projects for managing buried wastes. Meanwhile, the DOE is continuing to dump wastes into unlined pits and trenches. A culture of denial seems deeply embedded in the DOE with regard to the threat posed by buried wastes."

Paul Schwartz, Director for Water Policy of Clean Water Action, in welcoming the report said, "Activists and policy-makers should pay far more attention to the threat posed to the purity of critical water supplies in the United States by past radioactive dumping. Clean Water Action is certainly going to do so. There is no room for complacency when it comes to plutonium and americium."

The DOE buried more plutonium containing waste at INEEL than at any other nuclear weapons site. Direct injection of radioactive and hazardous substances into the Snake River Plain aquifer and dumping of wastes into percolation ponds resulted in plumes of pollutants like strontium-90, iodine-129, and trichloroethylene (TCE) in the aquifer. Some areas under the site are contaminated at levels far above the Safe Drinking Water standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency. While these standards do not apply to the water under INEEL, they do indicate the severity of the problem of water pollution due to past waste dumping and the need for clean-up.

"The combined threat from the radioactive and hazardous chemicals in the buried wastes is enormous," continued Beatrice Brailsford of the Snake River Alliance. "Severe contamination of the Snake River Plain aquifer would have serious consequences for the health of the people and economy of Idaho. The Snake River Plain aquifer is the only source of drinking water for 200,000 people in southern Idaho and a major source of irrigation water for regional crops and fisheries. The produce grown in Idaho is eaten throughout the United States and in many other countries, including Japan, Canada, and Mexico. Idaho's trout farms, which rely on the groundwater, produce 75 percent of the commercial rainbow trout eaten in the US."

The report recommends that:

  • buried wastes be recovered from the dumps and processed in order to stabilize them for storage,
  • all shallow land burial of radioactive wastes be stopped,
  • the vadose zone be remediated to the extent possible, and
  • a more vigorous groundwater monitoring program be implemented.

"This will not be a simple project and will need to be carried out carefully, with due regard for worker safety," said Dr. Makhijani. "But it is a project that is essential for protecting the health of the Snake River Plain aquifer and also for security. If site control is lost, the dumps would be a potential nuclear weapons mine since they contain more than 200 nuclear bombs worth of plutonium."

Source: IEER press release, 9 October 2001

Contact: Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), 6935 Laurel Ave. Takoma Park, Maryland, 20912, US
Tel: +1 301 270 5500. Fax: +1 301 270 3029