Scorie nucleari: negli USA sono ormai 3.500 le zone contaminate (agosto)

36 milioni di metri cubi di scorie radioattive, 75 milioni di metri cubi di terreno
contaminato, 1,8 miliardi di metri cubi di acqua contaminata, 3.500 zone
dichiarate off-limits: questa l'eredità della politica nucleare USA. Mentre negli
USA si moltiplicano le prime pagine sul problema del millennio, in Italia
"tutti zitti".

U.S. News 8/30/99

Indecent exposures
Why radioactive contamination bedevils a Kentucky town


>From the road, the building's a definite eye-catcher, a weird-looking
structure shaped like the dome of a silo. Stranger still is the story of how
it came to land in a suburban yard in Metropolis, Ill., population 6,822. It
turns out that a man who worked in a uranium plant took the top of a big
cooling tower, loaded it onto a truck, and drove it to Metropolis, where he
decided it would make a perfectly fine garage for the family car. A cooling
tower, it goes without saying, is not supposed to be so easily spirited from
an industrial plant, much less a plant like Kentucky's supersensitive Paducah
Gaseous Diffusion Plant, where highly trained workers handled dismantled
nuclear weapons. But this apparent failure to control access to the Paducah
plant was just one of many security lapses there that could threaten public
health. Radioactive contamination has been identified outside Paducah's gates
in the ditches, streams, and ponds adjacent to the facility, as well as at a
downtown parking lot and at the local high school, according to sealed
lawsuit documents obtained by U.S. News from sources that are not parties to
the court action. The suit alleges that the contractor who ran the plant
misled the federal government about worker exposure at the plant and about
radioactive contamination. Sources familiar with the situation at Paducah are
concerned that while residents are probably not exposed to exceedingly high
doses of carcinogens, they are being exposed unnecessarily.

Until now, it was believed that only workers at the plant had been at risk.
Each day, laborers there would handle uranium powder that they had been told,
time and again, was safe enough to eat, documents claim. The lawsuit,
however, offers voluminous evidence that the workers were exposed to
extraordinary levels of plutonium radiation at the plant for decades. After
the lawsuit was first reported in the Washington Post, the Department of
Energy promised its own comprehensive investigation, noted that the health
risks are a legacy of the past, and claimed that conditions are safe today.

Exposure elsewhere. But excessive levels of radiation have been detected as
recently as this year, not just on plant grounds but in the town of Paducah
itself, according to court documents. On May 1, Ronald Fowler, one of the
whistle-blowers, says he spotted and photographed several trucks containing
canisters of uranium hexafluoride parked at a downtown parking lot in
Paducah. The gate to the fenced lot was open and some of the cylinders
carrying the enriched uranium, which was on its way to another plant to be
made into fuel for a nuclear reactor, were within 30 feet of a sidewalk. One
nuclear expert says a pedestrian would get "some" radioactive exposure just
walking by the truck. Fowler, whose job as a health physicist at Paducah
required him to spot unsafe practices, says, "I have seen children on
bicycles playing inside the fenced area."

Fowler also says workers told him of "massive purgings" of radioactive gas
into the air at the plant, always at night. Whether Paducah's stacks were
clandestinely purged last fall is not known. What is known is that an air
monitor on the playing field at Heath High School detected an excessive level
of radiation at that time. A plant investigation could not explain it. There
is no record of an authorized release into the air–some are permitted under
federal rules–that day.

Concerned by the horror stories he was hearing from workers, Fowler and a
colleague began surveying Paducah at night with a black light to see if
fluorine contamination–from uranium hexafluoride– was widespread. "Various
locales both on and off site would light up like a Christmas tree when a
black light was shone on the ground and other areas," Fowler says in court
documents. He later went back to the same spots with radiation-measuring
devices and detected "significant" radioactive contamination. He says he was
ordered by his boss to stop the black-light surveys.

Poisoned water. Between the town and the plant is a wildlife site managed by
the state of Kentucky. Frequented by hunters, Boy Scouts, and fishermen, it
is highly contaminated. Soil samples taken by another Paducah health
physicist, Charles Deuschle, along roads, near railroad tracks, and in
creeks, contain levels of six different radioactive isotopes that exceeded
federal standards, the lawsuit states. Levels of plutonium in soil outside
the plant, for example, were 127 times as great as what the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission considers safe. The areas "should no longer be used for
recreational purposes," said Thomas Cochran, a physicist with the Natural
Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, in his statement on behalf
of the Paducah lawsuit. Cochran recommended that the contaminated sites be
marked to safeguard the public. "The lack of protective measures I witnessed
off site . . . is astounding," he wrote.

For now, signs in and about the wildlife area invite people in rather than
warn them off. One pond in the wildlife refuge is equipped with a wheelchair
ramp, so that anyone might fish. And there is this gentle reminder alongside
another pond so contaminated that all the fish were removed: "Please Do Not
Litter." But despite the latest allegations, no one has posted a single new
sign warning people to stay away.


The cost of cleaning up the bomb plants

It sounds like something out of a B-grade horror movie. Radioactive ants and
flies are discovered, crawling and buzzing around piles of trash. The scary
part? It's true. The bugs were found near nuclear weapons sites in Washington
State and New Mexico.

Fifty years of nuclear weapons production have left a legacy of contamination
across the nation. And radioactive bugs are just the least of it. Billions of
gallons of chemical waste and radioactive materials were dumped, spilled, or
have leaked into the soil and ground water around the nation's nuclear
weapons sites. And experts say the cleanup could be just as hazardous as the
mess itself. "You need to be cautious and emphasize safety and health in
cleanup," says Robert Bistline, a physicist at the Rocky Flats facility in
Colorado, "because you never know what's behind the closet door."

Among the experts' greatest fears: that the radioactive and toxic substances
unearthed will cause a new wave of related illnesses, most notably beryllium
disease, an often fatal lung disorder. Since the start of cleanup activities
at Rocky Flats over the past few years, there have been several new cases of
beryllium disease. Lee Newman, a physician at the National Jewish Medical and
Research Center in Denver who is monitoring current Rocky Flats workers, says
minute quantities of beryllium can trigger the disease. He has found the
disease in people who have been exposed to just one fifth the amount of
beryllium allowed by federal standards.

Health and safety issues in the nation's nuclear weapons complex are getting
more attention now. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson says worker safety is a
priority, and President Clinton last month proposed legislation to pay the
medical expenses of DOE workers suffering from beryllium disease. But
problems persist. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently
examined 16 facilities at two DOE nuclear weapons sites. Investigators found
137 violations of federal standards.

"Nothing's changed," says Tara O'Toole, DOE's assistant secretary of
environment, safety, and health from 1993 to 1997, warning there needs to be
better "accountability and responsibility." Otherwise, cautions a senior DOE
official, the nuclear weapons complex is destined to "repeat the problems of
the past." -Douglas Pasternak

A legacy of waste

Cleaning up the nation's nuclear weapons plants will cost more than $200
billion. A quick look at how the mess stacks up:

Total waste: 36 mil. cubic meters
Could bury Manhattan in 2.5 ft. of waste

Contaminated soils: 75 mil. cubic meters
Could cover Manhattan in 5 ft. of soil

Contaminated ground water: 1.8 bil. cubic meters
Could flood Manhattan in 135 ft. of water

Number of contaminated facilities: 3,500