Energy Dept. Planning to Re-Check Alaskan Nuke Site for Potential Leaking

The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) this summer will embark upon a 10-day inspection of Amchitka Island, Alaska, the site of the largest underground nuclear-weapons test in U.S. history. According to a contracting document obtained by The Peacock Report, NNSA’s Nevada Site Office (NSO), which has jurisdiction over environmental remediation and testing at Amchitka, this week began making preparations for the journey with a Las Vegas-based organization known as the Stoller-Navarro Joint Venture.

The objective of the project is to assess whether previous environmental remediation efforts prevented the release of nuclear taint above ground and into adjacent sources of water.

SNJV, which will serve as the prime contractor for the upcoming project, said in a Statement of Work (SOW) located by TPR that the planned inspection is a follow-up to a NNSA/NSO remediation project conducted in 2001. That initiative had focused on six areas associated with nuclear-bomb “release sites” that the Dept. of Defense and Atomic Energy Commission drilled into Amchitka Island during three detonations in the 1960s and 1970s.

The goal of the 2001 remediation “was to eliminate human and ecological exposure to contaminants” associated with the drilled mud pits, a process that was attempted via the construction of “engineered closure caps at several locations on the Island,” according to the SOW.

In order to see whether that remedial action remains effective, this summer’s journey entails inspection of the nuclear “mud pit sites” that were previously “capped.” In preparation for the July 31-Aug. 9 expedition, SNJV this week began soliciting subcontractors to supply the group with 4×4 pickup trucks, food, water, and other supplies and logistics needed for the inspection.

The contractor crew will then be poised to obtain surface water samples and will perform “limited maintenance on the caps, if needed,” it says.

Several years before the 2001 remediation, Greenpeace sponsored an expedition to Amchitka “to determine whether radioactive leakage is occurring at the three nuclear test sites.” According to Greenpeace, which then said it had reviewed over 1,100 documents from the Dept. of Energy (DOE), “sampling efforts sponsored by the government over the past 25 years were inadequate to detect the presence of long-lived radionuclides in the environment of Amchitka. Given the level of seismic activity in the Aleutian region, we believe there is a strong possibility that radioactivity is leaking at Amchitka Island.”

Greenpeace, which, it should be noted, was founded in response to the nuclear testing at Amchitka, published its conclusions in an Oct. 1996 report Nuclear Flashback: Report of a Greenpeace Scientific Expedition to Amchitka Island, Alaska – Site of the Largest Underground Nuclear Test in U.S. History.”

It concluded that:

1. “The Cannikin nuclear test site on Amchitka, the site of the largest underground nuclear test in U.S. history is leaking long-lived transuranic radioactivity into the Bering Sea via White Alice Creek…

2. Cannikin leaks because of a design error that put too large an explosive too close to the land surface so that mechanical containment was breached within two days of the detonation. Leakage from the Cannikin site is probably extensive, involving groundwater pathways through fissures and through the bottom of Cannikin Lake.”

3. Aggressive radiological and chemical monitoring is required to define the full extent of Cannikin leakage and to allow evaluation of remediation measures.”

4. [The] Long Shot [site] leaks small amounts of long-lived radioactivity and should be added to the list of containment failures.

5. Underground nuclear explosion sites in wet environments leak radioactivity, because the explosions open pathways to and from the blast cavity for groundwater movement…

6. Those who protested the Cannikin nuclear explosion 25 years ago have been proven right by this Greenpeace study.”

However, scientists from the Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation (CRESP), in a $3 million, DOE-funded study , returned to the island in 1994; though CRESP expressed similar concerns about the need to conduct ongoing, long-term testing, a recent University of Alaska-Fairbanks online article points out that the study concluded “no radioactivity was found beyond the expected background levels present everywhere on the planet.”

Unrelated to the specific question of whether Amchitka is leaking nuclear contaminants, the Dept. of Labor (DOL) has concluded that some participants in the 1971 blast indeed have contracted cancer as a result of their involvement. Suing under the “Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act,” one unnamed contractor, for example, made a successful bladder-cancer claim — though a DOL workers’ compensation administrator as of June 2003 declined to rule whether the Amchitka nuclear tests were likewise responsible for prostate cancer suffered by that same contractor.

Additional resources about the nuclear legacy of Amchitka Island:

Alaska Community Action on Toxics

American Geological Institute


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