Rhode Island’s Nuclear Fatality Part III An Acceptable Level

Nuclear contamination is a particularly nasty problem. Undetectable except with instruments, low-level nuclear emissions can raise the risk of cancer and birth defects. When United Nuclear closed for lack of profits in 1980, leaks of radioactive water into the soil and groundwater had polluted the site of the plant. This put the site under the authority of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The potential danger of nuclear waste depends on the elements present. Some decay and lose their radioactivity very fast. Others remain poisonous for thousands of years. The Providence Journal reported that it was fourteen years from the time the plant closed until the NRC was ready to release the land from Federal jurisdiction…

United Nuclear moves closer to sale of land
Hill, John. Providence Journal. Providence, R.I.:Dec 5, 1994. p. 1

…NRC staff say the site is within safe limits for radioactivity, but there is still an underground swath of non-radioactive nitrates polluting ground water beyond the state’s safe-drinking limit.

The nitrates stretch out in a narrow plume about 1,500 feet to the northwest, toward the Pawcatuck River. It is that plume, and the question of who will monitor it, that has concerned state and federal environmental regulators. The NRC and the company argue that because the plant is within safe limits for radio activity, the NRC has no business overseeing it.

… in the late 1970s, the state Department of Environmental Management detected radioactive materials and the nitrate plume, which had leaked from trenches outside the plant.

“Radiologically it’s finished,” said John Austin, the NRC’s chief of low-level waste and decontamination projects. “The outstanding issue now is nitrates in the ground water, and the NRC does not have jurisdiction over nitrates.”

DEM and the company reached a testing agreement last month that calls for the company to pay for monitoring wells that will track the nitrate pollution.

I wonder what it took to get United Nuclear to agree.

The Providence Journal article Chain Reaction, 3/11/90, the main source for this series, has a photo of the groundbreaking ceremony for the opening of United Nuclear in 1963. Gov. John H. Chafee, Sen. Claiborne Pell and Sen. John O. Pastore are holding shovels. They had great hopes for what the plant would do, create 1000 good jobs for Rhode Islanders in an exciting and growing industry.

The plant never hired more than 80 workers and left a nightmarish cleanup problem…

For two years the UNC Disposal Site [Oak Ridge, Tennessee] accepted and disposed of waste from the decommissioning of a UNC uranium recovery facility in Wood River Junction, Rhode Island. Between June 1982 and November 1984, the UNC Disposal Site received 11,000 55-gal drums of sludge fixed in cement, 18,000 drums of contaminated soil, and 288 wooden boxes of contaminated building and process demolition materials. (link)

A massive and expensive effort. Two years of trucks carrying nuclear waste across the country. Who paid? The NRC is a Federal agency. One thing is clear — making Rhode Island a depot for spent nuclear waste did nothing good for our economy and left one of the most pristine and beautiful areas in the state contaminated for years after the closing of United Nuclear.

Public risk, private profit. Taxpayers stuck with the bill–Part IV.


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