A California congressman charged yesterday high-level radiocative waste is contained in some of the thousands of drums that are leaking radiation onto the sea bottom off the coast of California.
Democratic Rep. Glenn Anderson cited congressional testimony, dumping licenses and Atomic Energy Commission reports, all from the 1950s, to prove his point. The documents, he said, were ignored by Environmental Protection Agency officials, who have said repeatedly that only low-level radioactive wastes were disposed of offshore.
The dumping took place between 1946 and 1965 and involved about 48,000 drums. Anderson said his documents show that an unknown number were dropped much closer to shore and in much shallower water than regulations allowed.
The EPA, Anderson said, has taken a "cavalier" attitude toward monitoring the sites and has never checked to make sure all the drums are where they are supposed to be. He introduced legislation that would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to locate and examine the drums to determine whether they contain high-level wastes.
Roger Mattson of the EPA's office of radiation programs responded that the formal definition of "high-level wastes" includes only spent nuclear reactor fuel and the byproducts of reprocessing that fuel or of producing defense nuclear materials.
Some wastes formally classified as "low level" are in fact high in radiation and can be dangerous, Mattson said. The wastes off California, he said, include the highly radioactive isotopes plutonium, cesium and tritium from experimental programs but because of their orgin, they were not classified as "high-level wastes."
"We've been monitoring the general environment for years and there is nothing in the water, nothing in the fish," he said. "Right by the barrels in the sediment there is some plutonium and some cesium, but not in the general environment."
Bringing up the barrels for examination, he said might break them. "There's more environmental risk to moving the things than leaving them there," he said. The EPA has relied an old Atomic Energy Commission records to locate the dumps sites, but he said the agency would be happy to see any new information.
Anderson cited testimony from the University of California at Berkley Radiation Laboratory to a congressional subcommittee in June 1958 as evidence that high-level wastes were routinely disposed of offshore. The testimony refers repeatedly to "high-level wastes," both solid and liquid, and discusses its handling at the laboratory and its conversion to solids in concrete for disposal.
However, the document does not mention any particular radiation level.
The EPA has estimated the total radioactivity of all 48,000 barrels of waste at 14,500 curies, a figure that Anderson questions. An Atomic Energy Commission summary of U.S. sea disposal operations through 1956, written by Arnold B. Joseph, Anderson said, stated that "the estimated curie content could be off as much as a factor of 10 -- meaning it could be 10 times too low, or 10 times too high.
The document said that was because early dumping was incompletely monitored and much material was mixed together. "Emitted radiation at the surface of a drum may be as much as one roentgen per hour," the report noted. Anderson said that indicated heavy internal radiation.
Federal radiation exposure limits are five roentgen per year.
The Joseph report also noted that bad weather and faulty equipment meant that "some (few) packages of waste have been deposited in alternative sites." Anderson said supervisors monitoring the dumping were not required to have any sea knowledge and could not be depended on to know the difference between 300 feet and 6,000 feet of water.