Radioactive Waste Cleanups After the Manhattan Project: Lessons Learned

The following post is one of a series previewing the research that will be presented at the SETAC North America 42nd Annual Meeting (SciCon4), 14–18 November 2021

A guest post by Karen Keil, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Nuclear contamination warning sign
Nuclear contamination warning sign, Adobe Stock Image

Radioactivity was first discovered over a century ago (circa 1890s). Within 50 years we were harnessing that incredible power to build an atomic bomb, in an effort to end World War II. However, the Manhattan Project left a legacy of radioactive waste sites. Over the last several decades, we have spent billions of dollars cleaning up the environmental impacts of this waste, with efforts still ongoing. What have we learned from this process? Although radioactive waste products are now considered “legacy” contaminants, back in the day they could have been classified as “contaminants of emerging concern”—substances whose recently discovered environmental consequences pose challenging problems to environmental scientists. What have we learned from the cleanup efforts for legacy radioactive waste? Can we apply the lessons learned to new contaminants?

We can draw several parallels between how we have been addressing these legacy contaminants and how we are beginning to address other emerging contaminants, of which per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group generating global concern. Are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes?  The development of the nation’s first atomic bomb was driven by a mindset of haste and secrecy—out of necessity—but with severe environmental and human health consequences. Similarly, the chemical industry does not regularly disclose formulations that are trade secrets, making it difficult for researchers and regulators to characterize PFAS in environmental samples. Eighty years ago, there was a lack of understanding of the fate, transport, and toxicity of all by-products associated with the extracting, refining, and machining of the uranium metal used in the first nuclear weapons. This resulted in an initially lax regulatory framework for the resulting radioactive wastes. We are similarly playing a game of catch up to understand the fate and effects of the thousands of PFAS already released into the environment in order to develop adequately protective environmental regulations. Advances in analytical techniques and a better understanding of ecological and human health risks resulted in increasingly more stringent radiation protection standards and will also likely drive changes to regulatory and investigative frameworks for PFAS. In my presentation at the SETAC North America 42nd Annual Meeting, I will discuss examples of Manhattan Project sites contaminated with radioactivity and the lessons learned from cleanup efforts. At some of these sites, advances in radiological analytical techniques, coupled with an improved understanding of both fate and effects of radioactivity in the environment, resulted in broader investigations and ultimately more comprehensive remedial actions. For example, certain radioisotopes which were not initially identified or quantified were later found to contribute significantly to environmental impacts and ultimately became the focus of remedial efforts at some sites. Are our analytical techniques for detecting PFAS keeping up with our understanding of how these compounds behave in and affect the environment? And are our regulations keeping up with their release to and persistence in the environment? Or are we still in a “Manhattan Project” (war time) mindset of secrecy and haste, causing us to release—then scramble to address—emerging contaminants in the environment?  That mindset resulted in an immense legacy of radioactive waste that we will continue to address for decades to come. My intention in providing these observations from 80 years and billions of dollars of radioactive waste remediation is that we learn from our history before the next class of chemicals of emerging concern emerges. Is it too late to learn these lessons for PFAS?

“Lessons From Addressing Last Century’s Contaminants of Emerging Concern: Radioactive Waste Cleanups After the Manhattan Project” is presentation 07.02.03 and can be viewed on-demand.

A live session panel discussion, Contaminants of Emerging Concern and Superfund, will be held Thursday, 18 November, 9:30 a.m.–11:30 a.m. PST.

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