Restarting Savannah River?

By Tim Connor

Vol. 12, No. 5, 1990, pp. 6-7

The Department of Energy (DOE) plans to resume operations in the coming weeks at its three aging production reactors near the Georgia-South Carolina border. Brushing aside questions about the need for the nuclear weapons materials, which the facilities produce, the Department continues to downplay the environmental risks associated with the reactors' restart.

The planned restart comes in the aftermath of a report in which the Energy Department concedes, for the first time, that people living near another major nuclear weapons plant at Hanford, Wash. were exposed to dangerous levels of radioactivity.

In its recent report on Hanford, DOE acknowledges that the releases of radioactive iodine posed the greatest health threat. Scientists know radioactive iodine concentrates in the thyroid gland, causing thyroid cancer and other diseases. Milk from cows grazing on contaminated grass is the major source for radioactive iodine exposure to humans. As the Hanford study indicates, infants and children--in whose smaller thyroids the radioactivity is most densely concentrated--are most vulnerable.

Savannah River Deserves Scrutiny

The news from Hanford should be of special interest to Georgians and South Carolinians. The revelations at Hanford came about only after years of efforts by citizen groups and journalists to force DOL to release hundreds of environmental records that had been classified for over 30 years. While it's not yet clear whether Savannah River's closets contain the same skeletons, one thing is dear. We should be demanding a thorough, independent study of the history of radiation releases from Savannah River before nuclear materials production resumes at the plant.

Until now DOE, following in the footsteps of its predecessor--the Atomic Energy Commission--has invoked national security to thwart outside scrutiny of the environmental consequences of its operations. And since its inception, the agency charged with producing nuclear weapons has also exercised extraordinary control over the study of radiation and its effects on human health.

There is a growing consensus among scientists that low level radiation causes more harm than previously thought. And we know that people living downwind and downstream of weapons production and testing sites like the Savannah River Site (SRS) have been exposed to more radioactive materials than generally realized.

Tritium Poses Threat at Savannah River

Although the available records indicate smaller releases of radioactive iodine from Savannah River than from Hanford, a closer look is certainly needed. Among other things, current reports indicate that releases of iodine-129--which remains in the environment for millions of years--is a significant contributor to off-site radiation.

The highest releases from SRS are of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen. Tritium may be the most invasive of all radioactive substances, capable of entering the body by both inhalation and absorption through the skin.

As a production center for tritium, the facility has released hundreds of times more tritium than other nuclear plants--including Hanford.

Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, who for 20 years chaired the International Commission on Radiological Protection committee charged with setting limits for internal radiation exposure, notes that the current standards understate tritium's toxicity by as much as five times.

Tritium levels in drinking water downstream from the Savannah River plant are seven to 25 times higher than that measured in other water supplies. Federal monitoring reports show high levels of tritium in rainfall well beyond the Savannah River plant boundary, with Columbia, S.C. having twice the average concentration of other southeastern cities. Surface water samples from South Carolina's Edisto River suggest that tritium from the plant has contaminated that watershed as well.

Low-Level Radiation: New Studies, New Fears

Tests that have been performed suggest the risk from radioactive gases is much greater than generally thought. Former Savannah River plant waste manager Bill Lawless stated that a 1982 test of atmospheric dispersion failed to match the predictions of computer models. The radioactive cloud, instead of breaking up near the site, was still intact as it floated over Fayetteville, N.C.--200 miles away.

Studies also indicate high concentrations of other radioactive elements dose to the SRS. Milk samples from nearby farms in Georgia and South Carolina regularly contain radioactive strontium-20 at levels nearly double the national and regional average. Largemouth bass caught in the Savannah River near the plant contain concentrations

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of radioactive cesium-137 at levels many times that measured in bass from other river systems.

The accumulating evidence on low-level radiation continues to demolish previous, official assurances of safety. The more we learn, the more obvious it becomes that past practices and rhetoric were misguided and dangerous. Recently, Britain's Radiological Protection Board has dramatically reduced the acceptable radiation exposure levels for workers in the U.K.

The lesson of Hanford ought to be dear to those living in the shadows of other nuclear weapons plants around the country. Especially at facilities like the SRS, where DOE plans to continue producing nuclear materials for years to come, an earnest effort involving citizen participation and independent oversight to examine past and present releases should be completed prior to making any decision on restart.

For more information about the Savannah River Plant and what you can do, contact Ellen Spears at (404) 584-9902 or Jan Somers at (404) 491-8064.

Tim Connor is an analyst for the Energy Research Foundation, a non-profit research and educational organization. He lives in Augusta, Ga.