For more information, contact:
Mona S. Rowe, 631 344-5056, or
Peter A. Genzer, 631 344-3174
June 14, 2001

Brookhaven Lab Issues Historical Environmental Report

Report Covers the Years 1947-61

UPTON, NY - The U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory has issued a radiological emissions and environmental monitoring report for the years 1947-61. The report completes the series of environmental reports that Brookhaven has issued publicly from 1962 to the present. The document summarizes air and water emissions on and around the Brookhaven site for the Laboratory's first years of operation. 

Major facilities in operation during the period of this report were: 

To produce the report, Brookhaven reviewed extensive but incomplete records that are now 40-plus years old. Some general observations are borne out by the data:

(1) The Brookhaven Graphite Research Reactor (BGRR) was the primary source of routine air emissions, and argon-41 (1.8-hour half-life) was the dominant radionuclide. Argon emissions increased when the BGRR fuel was changed in 1958 from natural uranium to enriched uranium. All routine air emissions were below radiation guidelines of the time.

(2) The BGRR, the Hot Laboratory, and decontamination and hot-laundry operations generated most of the radionuclide-contaminated liquid effluents discharged to the sanitary system. Cesium-137 (30-year half-life) was the dominant radionuclide. All liquid emissions were below guidelines of the time.

(3) On 28 occasions, brief non-routine emissions of radioactivity resulted from malfunctioning BGRR fuel elements during the early years of BGRR operations. The radionuclide of most potential concern for these events was iodine-131 (8-day half-life). 

Data presented in this report are meant primarily to complete the sequence of Brookhaven's reporting of environmental monitoring data from the Laboratory's establishment in 1947 to the present. The report summarizes emissions, release estimates, and environmental monitoring from the early years. A number of gaps in available information were filled based on assumptions and analyses of the data that were available. In all cases, the intent was to make assumptions that were reasonable but would result in an overestimate of releases. 

Environmental Monitoring 

Brookhaven has monitored its releases to the environment since its inception in 1947. Activities in 1947 were primarily administrative, as the Lab set up scientific departments and support groups. The use on site of radioactive materials or materials containing radioactivity is documented in records from 1948 onward. 

Early environmental monitoring focused on radiation, and the data were reported in various internal documents and in presentations at scientific meetings. They were also summarized in the Laboratory's annual progress reports, which were submitted to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, a predecessor to the Department of Energy. 

Compared to today, early environmental monitoring was sparse and rudimentary and not subject to regulatory requirements. In addition, radiation protection limits took the form of agreements between the AEC and Brookhaven, with guidance from the National Council on Radiation Protection. No independent federal agency was responsible for establishing limits at that time. 

Air samples were collected from a chain of monitoring stations established at a distance out to 10 miles in various directions from the center of the site, which encompassed 3,600 acres at the time. Water samples were collected from the sewage treatment plant and its point of discharge to a tributary of the Peconic River. Meteorological conditions were monitored from a 420-foot-high tower, constructed for that purpose. 

The Laboratory's monitoring program also measured radioactive fallout from aboveground nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States and the Soviet Union. 

Data Summary 

Routine airborne emissions were primarily from the BGRR, an air-cooled research reactor. Its normal operation produced radionuclides, of which argon-41 was the single largest emission from the Laboratory. Argon-41 has a half-life of 1.8 hours, which means that for a given quantity, half decays every 1.8 hours. Air from the BGRR passed through high-efficiency filters before being released. All routine air emissions were below guidelines at the time. 

Until 1957, the BGRR used natural uranium fuel, which malfunctioned 28 times and resulted in brief releases of radioiodines, noble gases, and particles. For these events, which each lasted from a few minutes to several hours, iodine-131, which has a half-life of 8 days, was the radionuclide of most potential concern. In 1958, the natural uranium fuel was replaced with enriched uranium, eliminating the early problem of fuel-element failure. 

From 1951-57, when the BGRR operated with the natural uranium fuel, the maximum external exposure from the argon-41 at the site boundary ranged from 10-14 milliroentgens per year. During 1958-61, when enriched fuel was used, the maximum external exposure from the argon-41 at the site boundary ranged from 34-46 milliroentgens per year. (A milliroentgen is a unit of radiation exposure.) 

Most of the radioactively contaminated liquid effluents at Brookhaven originated from the BGRR, the Hot Laboratory, and from decontamination and hot laundry operations. Liquid effluents containing small amounts of radionuclides were discharged to the sanitary system, which leads to the Laboratory's sewage treatment plant. Samples were collected at the sewage plant and at its point of discharge to a small tributary of the Peconic River, and were analyzed for gross beta activity (a measurement of total beta activity), strontium-90, and cesium-137. All liquid emissions were below guidelines at the time. 

The historic emissions report, titled "Radiological Emissions and Environmental Monitoring for Brookhaven National Laboratory, 1947-1961," is available to the public at the Laboratory's research library. To receive a copy in the mail, call 631 344-2345.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies. Brookhaven also builds and operates major facilities available to university, industrial, and government scientists. The Laboratory is operated by Brookhaven Science Associates, a partnership led by Stony Brook University and Battelle, a nonprofit applied science and technology organization.