October 13, 1999

Lab Finds plutonium Traces in Peconic Sediment

BROOKHAVEN, N.Y. -- Officials at Brookhaven National Laboratory said on Tuesday that new tests showed the presence of small amounts of plutonium in sediment from the Peconic River, which begins on laboratory property.

The test results confirmed preliminary findings from last year.

plutonium, a radioactive metal used in nuclear weapons and produced by nuclear reactors, is highly toxic and can cause cancer.

But Michael Schlender, the laboratory's assistant director for environmental management, said the plutonium found in the new tests was far below the level the Federal Environmental Protection Agency considers necessary to require action, and posed no threat to people or aquatic life. He said no plutonium was found in fish or river water.

"We found very low levels of plutonium in the sediments in the portion of the river on our property," he said. "We found lower levels of plutonium in sediment in the river off our property."

Schlender said one reading of 7 picocuries per gram -- more than twice the E.P.A.'s threshold for action -- was measured in a berm at the lab's sewage treatment plant. He said the berm would be removed as part of the Superfund cleanup now in progress.

Readings in river sediment ranged from 0.09 picocuries per gram to 0.04 picocuries per gram.

Critics said the laboratory was downplaying the significance of the test results.

Brookhaven officials said they believed that some of the plutonium might have come from a graphite nuclear reactor the laboratory closed in 1969. Schlender said the remainder might have resulted from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons by the United States, the former Soviet Union and China during the 1950's and early 60's.

He said comparable, though smaller, amounts of plutonium were found in sediment samples taken from the Connetquot River, which does not run through the laboratory grounds.

The new testing involved analysis of 500 samples taken last spring from soil, sediment and water along the 17-mile length of the Peconic River, from the laboratory grounds east to Riverhead. The tests were prompted by the discovery of plutonium traces in sediment in June 1998.

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