November 9, 1999

Brookhaven Finds High Levels of Radioactive Contamination

UPTON, N.Y. -- In an unexpected finding, officials at Brookhaven National Laboratory said on Monday that they had detected tritium, a radioactive substance, in a monitoring well at levels twice the federal standard for drinking water in a monitoring well. But they said the contamination, found near a building housing a particle accelerator experiment, posed no health threat.

Officials at the Long Island laboratory said they believed the contamination in the sample, taken Oct. 14, came from an experiment in which tritium was produced in water used to cool superconducting magnets. A Nov. 2 sample showed the tritium level had decreased, but it was still higher than the federal standard.

Brookhaven's 5,300 acres were designated a federal Superfund site in 1989 because of radioactive and chemical contaminants in soil and ground water. The monitoring well is near the center of the site, about 1.8 miles from its southern border.

Thomas R. Sheridan, the laboratory's deputy director for operations, said the accelerator experiment, which began in 1997, has been shut down. A technical team has been searching for a leak in a containment system intended to prevent such discharges, he said.

Sheridan said the high reading was confined to a very small area. "There is absolutely no danger to the public," he said. "This is just barely higher than the drinking water standard, and these standards are set very low." He said no tritium was found in other nearby wells.

Tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, is a byproduct of nuclear reactors and is also used in nuclear weapons. Experts say it can cause cancer in humans in high dosages.

Brookhaven's critics said on Monday that the new finding showed that the lab, which is owned by the United States Energy Department, was more widely contaminated than the government has said. "We are still at the beginning of an environmental nightmare," said William N. Smith, the executive director of Fish Unlimited of Shelter Island. "As time goes by, more and more contamination will be found, and the lab is going to continue to minimize it."

Laboratory officials said the Oct. 14 water sample contained 41,700 picocuries of tritium per liter. The federal standard is 20,000 picocuries per liter. The concentration had dropped to 27,100 picocuries per liter in the Nov. 2 sample, they said.

Sheridan said the concentrations were far lower than amounts found two years ago in monitoring wells outside the lab's High Flux Beam Reactor, where a leak went undetected for at least 12 years.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is expected to decide next year whether the research nuclear reactor should resume operating. Richardson said last month that an environmental review found no major obstacles to that.

The lab's critics said the latest tritium results supported their argument that the reactor should stay closed. But Sheridan said the finding had "nothing to do" with the reactor or the lab's new $600 million Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.

"We are reporting this because we made a promise to the people of Long Island, and especially to the regulators and local politicians, that we will be as open as possible about these things," he said. "I would hope the public would appreciate that this is not a very serious event."

Home | Site Index | Site Search | Forums | Archives | Marketplace

Quick News | Page One Plus | International | National/N.Y. | Business | Technology | Science | Sports | Weather | Editorial | Op-Ed | Arts | Automobiles | Books | Diversions | Job Market | Real Estate | Travel

Help/Feedback | Classifieds | Services | New York Today

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company