In recent years, I’ve noticed a lot of noise being made by the energy industry about workplace safety and the environmental anxieties of Americans electorate. They’ve been talking nonstop about nuclear power and building new reactors for commercial use — something that hasn’t happened in the almost 30 years since Three Mile Island woke America up to the devilish details of nuclear energy production.
I’ve read the news articles and listened to the talking heads on this topic, and I wonder if anybody actually recalls Newton’s Third Law of Motion about reciprocal action.
It turns out somebody does. The State recently acquired through the Freedom of Information Act previously sealed records concerning Chem-Nuclear’s operation of the state-owned landfill in Barnwell County that opened in 1971.
The records in question show that groundwater below the nuclear waste dump has levels of radioactive tritium that exceed Environmental Protection Agency standards and compete with the contamination by the neighboring Savannah River Site A-bomb factory.
For those who cut class that day, tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen that occurs naturally in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. It is also a by-product in nuclear energy and weapons production and not thought to be as dangerous as plutonium.
However, prolonged exposure to tritium, primarily through contaminated drinking water, is known to cause birth defects and thought to be a cause of some forms of cancer.
Tritium is one of the speediest of radioactive materials and other slower types can follow it into groundwater if landfills are leaching radioactive contaminants.
The Barnwell dump contains 28 million cubic feet of mostly low-level nuclear waste that is not as toxic as atomic byproducts, but old reactor parts are also in that stew.
These old parts are irradiated with plutonium and uranium and could take thousands of years to lose their radioactivity.
According to The State, a 2006 map of monitoring wells showed that one-third had tritium levels exceeding EPA standards of safety. Previous reports also showed detectable levels of carbon-14, uranium-238, polonium-210, and chloroform in the monitoring wells.
The map shows the plume of contamination spreading from a late 1970s leak at the dump to the southwest of the facility.
The EPA standard is 20,000 pico curies of tritium per liter of water.
State records indicate that DHEC officials don’t think nearby residents should be concerned because they don’t live in the southwest flow of the contaminated groundwater, even though a small community lies directly south of the dump.
Chem-Nuclear says it’s in compliance with federal and state law because by the time the tritiated water reaches a monitoring facility on Mary’s Branch creek, the tritium levels have dropped below the EPA standard and the state mandate of 500,000 pico curies per liter of drinking water.
Chem-Nuclear says it will test the wells of any of its neighbors and that it has been sealing closed sections of the landfill over the last few years to keep rainwater out of those areas and, ultimately, the groundwater.
Nearby residents don’t think that Chem-Nuclear should be invited to test their wells.
Bill Steed has lived south of the landfill since 1978 and told The State, “They have not checked either of my wells.”
He’s not so sure Chem-Nuclear has his best interests at heart since the information was considered to be proprietary and secret, until The State slapped them with an FOIA request.
Steed added, “It’s got to be a concern … I know that water runs downhill.”
Well Mr. Steed, that ain’t the only thing.
So, while all the “energy security” blather is designed to capitalize upon a fear of the unknown, just remember what a great job the energy conglomerates did with nuclear power and its attendant waste in the first go-round.