U.S. Water News Online
LOS ALAMOS, N.M. -- Traces of radioactive tritium have been
found in the groundwater near a Los Alamos National Laboratory
nuclear storage area, which might suggest the facility is leaking.
A monitoring well near a collection of nuclear waste stored in oil
drums showed contamination by tritium, a radioactive form of
The contamination was a tiny fraction of the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency's drinking water standard.
Lab spokesman James Rickman said Los Alamos takes the findings
seriously and has not ruled out the possibility tritium is leaking
from the waste storage area. It would be the first time any deep
groundwater contamination was tied to the dump.
``It underscores our need for continued monitoring and
surveillance,'' Rickman said.
The tritium definitely came from the lab, he said. It also could
have trickled into the aquifer from some other place at the lab and
merely ended up in the aquifer near the storage area, Rickman said.
Greg Mello of the Santa Fe-based environmental group, the Los
Alamos Study Group, said the contamination is cause for concern.
``We have a huge nuclear waste dump to which more waste is added
every day,'' Mello said. ``It's located right next to a wetland and
above a drinking water aquifer.''
Mello and Rickman agreed the low concentration of tritium found is
not dangerous. The findings were announced recently at a meeting of
the lab's groundwater integration team.
Scientists will continue monitoring the well to see if
contamination levels change.
Tritium emits low-energy beta radioactivity so that even a sheet
of paper can shield a person from exposure. Tritium can be used as
medical diagnostic tracers and for radiotherapeutic treatments. Its
most common use is in the self-illuminating exit signs found in many
The storage area holds the equivalent of 45,000 drums of solid,
dry nuclear waste, all of which eventually will be sent to the Waste
Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico, Rickman said.
WIPP is a permanent storage site for certain radioactive wastes
generated by defense work.
The tritium, probably produced either as steam or water, is
absorbed into a special kind of resin to make it solid. Then it is
sealed in drums and stored in shafts drilled 65 feet into the ground,
Rickman said. The barrels and shafts are designed to be more or less
However, older tritium storage was not as sound, Rickman said,
leading scientists to believe the tanks might be leaking.
The mesa area where the waste is stored is very dry and made up of
volcanic rock that would not give water any easy path to the deep
aquifer where the tritium was found, he said.
The contamination was found in one of 10 lab monitoring wells that
help scientists map the lab's underground geology and how groundwater
moves through it.
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