Las Vegas Review-Journal
Friday, October 22, 1999
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal



     Contaminated water

     To the editor:

      Radioactive ground water contamination in Nevada is a hot topic lately, thanks largely to a report issued by an eminent panel of experts and featured in recent articles and commentaries. The report calls into question the effectiveness of the Department of Energy effort to understand the groundwater contamination at the Nevada Test Site.

      The Nevada Test Site Community Advisory Board places a high priority on preserving and protecting the scarce waters of Nevada, and it has scheduled a public meeting to discuss radioactive groundwater contamination from nuclear weapons testing. Here are a few reasons why:

      First are the sobering results of the expert panel tasked to review the DOE's Underground Test Area Program work at Frenchman Flat. The report provides compelling and substantial evidence that the fundamental underpinnings of the program's entire approach are flawed and further complicated by a lack of data.

      Second are the significant costs to Nevada for hosting the nation's nuclear testing program. While some may try to minimize or debate the conclusions reached by the panel, DOE's own estimate is that about 300 million curies of radioactivity have entered the groundwater as a result of 260 nuclear weapons tests conducted at or below the groundwater table at the test site. There is no debate that the resource damage has occurred.

      Exactly where the contamination is and where it may be going now appears to be the $176 million question. That is the cost to taxpayers for the test area program since its inception. Perhaps a palatable price to pay to define the radioactive contaminant boundaries, but not if the strategy won't work.

      The cost in terms of resource damage to Nevada's water has yet to be calculated. So far, no contamination has been detected off the test site in any public water supply. The obvious concern, however, is that radionuclides may eventually migrate to populated areas where ground water is used domestically and for agriculture. Based on the peer review report, we are no closer to knowing, with an acceptable degree of confidence, when or where that might occur. Any predictions are mere speculation, and no less speculative than the dollar figure that may eventually accompany a resource damage assessment.

      One final concern is centered in policy and process. The work of the Underground Test Area Program is regulated under a binding contract negotiated between the state, the DOE and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The contract contains a "public involvement plan" to allow the public to provide input and have a voice in the decision-making process. Unfortunately, the public is largely removed from the process and the community advisory board would like to see that plan utilized more effectively.

      In an effort to adequately and publicly address these concerns, the community advisory board has scheduled a presentation on Nov. 3 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. to discuss the results and implications of the external peer review report on Frenchman Flat. The meeting will be held at the Moyer Student Union at UNLV.

      The public is encouraged to attend and to provide input -- a critical element in helping to move this issue toward an acceptable solution.



     Las Vegas


     Mr. Nielsen is chair of the Nevada Test Site Community Advisory Board's Environmental Management Committee. Mr. Johnson chairs the Nevada Test Site Community Advisory Board. For more information about the meeting or the board, call 895-1453.
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