The Associated Press State & Local Wire
February 4, 1999

Study finds much more radiation released than previously thought at SRS

By PATRICIA J. MAYS, Associated Press Writer


Much more radiation was released at the Savannah River Site during the Cold War era than was previously thought, according to a new study released Thursday.

The findings were part of a 1,400-page draft of the second phase of the Dose Reconstruction Project released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 57,000 curies of radioactive iodine 131 were released during the early days of plutonium production at SRS compared with the previous estimate of 2,500 curies, the report said. A curie is a measurement of radioactivity. Iodine 131 was released into the air when reactor fuel was processed.

"The Savannah River Site turns out to fit the pattern in every other nuclear weapons facility that we know about: The sites' ability to estimate its releases was wrong," said Brian Costner, a Seattle-based consultant and former director of the Columbia-based Energy Research Foundation that monitored the complex's operations.

For other radioactive materials, the differences between what SRS has reported in the past and what the study found was not large, the report said.

This phase of the study merely tracked the history of radiation and chemical discharges, and thus it is unclear what doses of radioactive materials people might have been exposed to, said Michael Sage, deputy directory of the CDC's Environmental Hazards and Health Effects.

"At this point we really don't know how much people could have been exposed to in the area," Sage said.

The next phase of the study will try to determine the health effects, if any, on the nearby population.

The other major underestimate by SRS officials was with plutonium releases, which the report said was four times higher.

Many of the discrepancies were due to inadequate measurement methods and sampling losses during the early years of the plant's operation.

Until the late 1980s, SRS produced radioactive material such as tritium and plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program. The site now treats and processes the radioactive waste in the post-Cold War era.

Similar studies have been conducted at other Energy Department nuclear facilities. The Hanford facility in Washington state, the only other site in the nation that made plutonium for nuclear weapons, released 761,000 curies of iodine 131, 13 times the amount released at SRS.

"We are not really able to say whether that small number results in less of an exposure than Hanford or not," Sage said.

The estimates of how much radioactive materials from the weapons production activities got into the environment are based on 50,000 boxes of SRS records and interviews of current and former employees conducted by the Risk Assessments Corp., formerly known as Radiological Assessment Corp.

A Radiological Assessments official said in May that none of the radioactive releases was significant enough to harm nearby residents.

This latest report was released at a public meeting in Savannah. Similar meetings will be held next week in Aiken, S.C., and Columbia, S.C.

Bob Guild, a Columbia, S.C., environmental lawyer who has represented former SRS employees in lawsuits, said he wasn't surprised by the underestimates.

"What we basically now realize is to maintain our position in the arms race we essentially created one of the most contaminated places on the face of the earth," Guild said.