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U.S. has few answers on how to handle atomic waste it dumped in the ocean.

More than four decades after the U.S. halted a controversial ocean dumping program, the country is facing a mostly forgotten Cold War legacy in its waters: tens of thousands of steel drums of atomic waste.

From 1946 to 1970, federal records show, 55-gallon drums and other containers of nuclear waste were pitched into the Atlantic and Pacific at dozens of sites off California, Massachusetts and a handful of other states. Much of the trash came from government-related work, ranging from mildly contaminated lab coats to waste from the country's effort to build nuclear weapons.

Federal officials have long maintained that, despite some leakage from containers, there isn't evidence of damage to the wider ocean environment or threats to public health through contamination of seafood. But Wall Street Journal review of decades of federal and other records found unanswered questions about a dumping program once labeled "seriously substandard" by a senior EPA official:

* How many dump sites are there? Over the years, federal estimates have ranged from 29 to more than 60.

* How much of various types of radioisotopes are in the waste containers? While some isotopes are short-lived, others remain radioactive for hundreds or thousands of years.

* Has evidence of radioactive contamination in fish been adequately pursued? A 1983 California law calling for fish testing and annual reports on a major dump site off San Francisco produced just one state report, in 1991, even though that study found fish contamination and recommended follow-up research.

* Where are all the containers--whose numbers top 110,000, by one federal count--on the sea floor, even at known dump sites? For instance, an estimated 47,000 containers lie at the site near San Francisco. Though there were three designated dump areas for the containers, "many were not dropped on target," according to a 2010 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which called the waste site a "potentially significant resource threat."

Much of the site--about 50 miles west of San Francisco, near the Farallon Islands--is within a national marine sanctuary that the federal government describes as "a globally significant" ecosystem "that supports abundant wildlife and valuable fisheries."

Only about 15% of an estimated 540 square miles of sea floor containing the barrels, at depths from 300 to over 6,000 feet, has been evaluated, the NOAA report said.

In a recent response to questions, NOAA said it wants to further study the dump site but lacks the funds. Representatives of federal agencies recently contacted reiterated that the evidence collected over the years shows that the dump sites aren't posing any threat to the environment or the public.

A 2001 federal study of part of the Farallon dump site found indications of leakage from barrels, but only "very low levels" of radioactive contamination in sediment samples. The Food and Drug Administration said that in 1990 it found traces of plutonium in fish samples from the site but at levels well within safety standards.

Questions about the sites stem partly from the government's approach to discarding the waste. Early on, waste drums were simply "taken out to a convenient location and put overboard," said a 1956 report from the now-defunct Atomic Energy Commission. "Little administrative or technical control of those operations was required or exercised." Estimates of the radioactivity amounts in the containers "could be off as much as a factor of 10," the document said, adding "little is known of the fate of radioisotopes added to the sea."

Early government survey efforts had difficulty finding the dumps. One 1980 report by an EPA official noted that in 11,000 underwater photos taken in the early 1960s during dump surveys in the Atlantic and Pacific, no photo captured a single waste drum.

Years after it started, the federal government began having second thoughts about the ocean dumping, as did other countries over their own programs. A 1970 report from the federal Council on Environmental Quality recommended no further ocean dumping except as a last resort. That same year, ocean dumping off the U.S. coasts effectively ended. (In the 1990s, the U.S. signed on to an international compact banning the practice.)

Government and public interest in the fate of that offshore waste has waxed and waned over the decades. Perhaps the biggest flare-up came in the late 1970s and early 1980s amid talk dumping might resume in the U.S.

At a 1980 congressional hearing, the EPA, which had primary oversight of the dump sites, reiterated its belief there wasn't a public health or environmental problem. However, it agreed information about the dump sites was "certainly inadequate."

Source: The Wall Street Journal
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Publication:Nuclear Waste News
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jan 16, 2014
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