Contact: Mona S. Rowe, or Kara Villamil
Public Health Statement on plutonium from the Agency for Toxic Substance & Disease Registry
BNL Fact sheet on plutonium
UPTON, NY - The U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory has gathered preliminary results of tests for plutonium in Peconic River sediment on the Laboratory property and in the river bed one mile beyond BNL's eastern border. The test results indicate low levels of plutonium, and these results are being independently validated.
Radiation specialists at the Lab say that while plutonium is detectable through sensitive analysis, the preliminary levels found in the river bed are low.
BNL Director John Marburger said, "This new information is consistent with our understanding of contamination on and off site. We are committed to characterizing the contaminants and taking appropriate cleanup actions."
DOE and BNL have notified health officials with Suffolk County, New York State and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"We intend to address the health and environmental concerns about this issue," said Dean Helms, Executive Manager of DOE's Brookhaven Group. "DOE and BNL will continue to work with county, state and federal health officials to do a more extensive test of river sediments."
The plutonium came from past releases from the Brookhaven Graphite Research Reactor, which operated from 1950-1968. The reactor used uranium as fuel and produced plutonium as a byproduct.
Waste from the Graphite Reactor was handled in three facilities on the BNL property - the waste concentration facility, building 650 and the old hazardous waste management area. In previous tests, plutonium was found in all of these areas, with the highest level at building 650, where contaminated equipment, tools and clothing were cleaned. There, the highest concentration in soil is 170 picocuries per gram.
Waste water from the Graphite Reactor went to the waste concentration facility, where radioactive liquid was concentrated into a sludge. The sludge, containing most of the radioactive materials, was solidified and sent off site for disposal. The remaining liquid distillate was discharged directly into the sanitary system and released into the Peconic River through the Lab's sewage treatment plant. With the Graphite Reactor shut down in 1968, that waste-water stream was gradually eliminated.
In the past, BNL has tested the river sediment for a variety of radioactive materials, including americium, cesium, cobalt and strontium. The recent tests for plutonium are the first the Laboratory has done for that specific radionuclide in river sediment, although BNL has tested specifically for plutonium in soils on site.
These radioactive materials settle out of water and bind to sediment. Hence, levels of cesium and other radionuclides have been consistently higher closest to the sewage plant's discharge point in the eastern-central portion of the Lab property. Following expected patterns of deposition, the plutonium levels are likely to be highest in sediment closest to the point of discharge from the plant.
BNL's sewage treatment plant and surrounding area, including a section of the Peconic River, will be remediated under requirements of the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, commonly known as the Superfund law. The recent plutonium tests are part of BNL's ongoing Superfund activities.
Q: What is plutonium?
A: Plutonium is a radioactive metal that is a byproduct of nuclear reactor operation.
Plutonium is also used for nuclear weapons and satellite power systems. It is present in the environment from past aboveground nuclear weapons testing.
There are several different forms of plutonium, called isotopes. All of them are radioactive, which means that all of them give off energy in the form of radiation; this process is called radioactive decay. Some common isotopes are plutonium-238, plutonium-239 and plutonium-240.
Q: How hazardous is plutonium?
A: Health authorities state that it is hazardous only if inhaled or ingested.
The plutonium found at BNL is in sediment and soil only, and there is no direct pathway for a person to inhale or ingest it.
Q: Where is plutonium found in the environment at or near BNL, and why is it there?
A: It is in three known locations, because of practices performed over 30 years ago.
We have found low levels of plutonium in the soils of the old waste management facility, the soils near the Bldg. 650 area, and in the sediment of the Peconic River tributary that is fed by our Sewage Treatment Plant. We have also found it in waste tanks in the Waste Concentration Facility.
The source of the plutonium in all these places is the Brookhaven Graphite Research Reactor (BGRR), which operated from 1950 to 1968 as the world's first reactor for peacetime scientific research.
Plutonium produced as a byproduct in the BGRR's fuel was able to reach these three areas through actions carried out under past environmental regulations that were much less strict than those in place today.
For example, the plutonium in the river sediment probably came from wastewater that was sent to the sewage treatment plant from the waste concentration facility. Such wastewater was produced by the distillation of spent fuel pool water, which was contaminated with radioactive elements when BGRR fuel was cut up in preparation for shipment. Although the distillation process produced solid waste that was packaged and sent for off-site storage, the liquid waste contained residual radioactivity.
Q: What will BNL do about the plutonium it has released to the environment?
A: We will work with environmental authorities to remove it or use other options that will prevent exposures to people and the environment.
Under the Superfund program, the U.S. Department of Energy, the EPA, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the public all have a part in deciding what will be done in these areas. We are now seeking public comment on a report for the river area.
At the old waste management facility and Bldg. 650, BNL plans to excavate the soils and dispose of them off our site.
We are now performing additional tests on the Peconic River sediments, and studying possible options for the remediation of these sediments. The final option will be chosen based on calculations that include potential risk to the public.