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THE NATION : Nuclear-weapons cleanup has miles to go

November 13, 2009|Ralph Vartabedian

LIVERMORE, CALIF. — The Energy Department is spending $328 million to clean up two separate areas of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory -- the agency's largest nuclear-weapons cleanup project in California.

The cleanup is relatively minor compared with others in the U.S., but it still has led to conflicts between the local community and the federal government as both search for a solution that is affordable and environmentally acceptable.

Livermore is one of two U.S. labs that designed nuclear weapons. It continues to conduct research into plutonium behavior, high-powered lasers, computer-simulated nuclear reactions and other areas.

Under the cloak of secrecy, the lab conducted experiments with plutonium and uranium, and fabricated prototype weapons parts. At its large test range near Tracy, in Northern California, it blew up atomic triggers that used depleted uranium.

In the process, Livermore released uranium, tritium, solvents and high explosive residues into the ground and groundwater, said Judy Steenhoven, deputy chief of environmental restoration at the lab. The contaminants, however, have not affected public water supplies. Although Livermore's contamination is far less potent than at other sites in the nuclear-weapons complex, it is unlikely that the land will ever be suitable for homes or other uses for the general public.

A formal environmental decision last year designates the land at the larger of two sites as industrial use, a common restriction for thousands of square miles contaminated in the nuclear-weapons program.

At the main site in Livermore, a plume of underground water contaminated with solvents, mainly trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene, as well as tritium and chromium, has migrated several hundred feet past the site boundary to a residential neighborhood.

This year, the Environmental Protection Agency fined the lab $165,000 for failing to control the contamination. The lab had shut down its water treatment system after a temporary interruption in funding, but even after Congress restored funds, the lab "demonstrated a lack of diligence," the EPA said.

Meanwhile, the lab's testing range, known as Site 300, has depleted uranium, solvents and tritium in its soil and groundwater.

At the highest concentrations, the tritium there reaches 264,000 picocuries per liter, about 13 times the federal standard.

It took a court order for Livermore to cap private wells that drew from the contaminated plume, said Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, a watchdog group in Livermore.

Though Kelley said the cleanup at Livermore had been more competent that at other locations, she believes cleanup standards across the nation are too lax and fail to protect human health.

"There is no best solution for the cleanup, only bad solutions," Kelley said.

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ralph.vartabedian@ latimes.com

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