Joseph Carson (73530.2350@CompuServe.COM)
22 Mar 97 12:27:14 EST
[banner] [NYU] [MaxwellHouse]
March 22, 1997
At 50, Brookhaven Lab Is Beset With Problems and
Fighting Its Image
Related Articles [Image]
* Brookhaven Lab Director Steps Down Over
Radioactivity Issue (March 8)
* Water Near Nuclear Lab Is Deemed Safe Despite Leak
* Area surrounding Brookhaven National Laboratory
* Brookhaven: Assessing the Risks
* Brookhaven: The Contaminants
By DAN BARRY and ANDREW C. REVKIN
[U] PTON, N.Y. -- Beneath the nuclear reactor that
stands at the center of the Brookhaven National
Laboratory here, past the security checkpoints and the
signs urging evacuation at the sound of a bell, there
sits a tiled pool that is leaking as much as 14 gallons
of water a day. The escaping water is radioactive.
Although officials here said the leak poses no
immediate health threat, they agree that it is the
likely source of water containing tritium that has
spread in a plume underground through the sandy soil
toward a residential area. Today, the laboratory
announced a plan to stop the advance of the
contaminated water by pumping it into a basin near the
center of the lab's property.
These days, Brookhaven has so many problems that a
radioactive plume can seem like just another item on a
maintenance crew's check-off list. There is the
pesticide contamination of the ground water to the
southeast, the chemical-solvent contamination to the
southwest and the recent discovery of a long-forgotten
tank containing yet more radioactive material.
There are also the repeated calls from Sen.Alfonse
D'Amato and Rep. Michael Forbes for Congressional
investigations into Brookhaven.
These matters have only aggravated the laboratory's
problems with its neighbors.
Brookhaven contends, and Suffolk County's Health
Department agrees, that so far, the radioactive leaks
and hazardous wastes have not compromised the public
health. But lab officials acknowledge that their
mismanagement and mixed messages have jeopardized the
"It damages our credibility," said W. Robert Casey,
director of the laboratory's safety and environmental
division. "It makes it hard for people to accept our
other statements that we are concerned and are doing a
This year, the 50th anniversary of Brookhaven, was
supposed to provide an opportunity to remind the people
of Suffolk County that the laboratory continues to be
at the cutting edge of scientific and medical research;
that it has produced four Nobel Prize winners; that its
advances have provided for everything from faster
computers to better treatment of Parkinson's disease.
"We had all sorts of plans" for lectures and tours,
Mona S. Rowe, a spokeswoman, said. "But all that went
out the window."
Now the laboratory, whose 3,200 employees belong to a
nonprofit agency working for the Department of Energy,
is fighting to regain its credibility at a time when
the federal government is questioning the need for
It is in the midst of spending up to $300 million in
Superfund money to clean up widespread contamination
and more than $10 million to provide public water
hook-ups to 1,320 homes; several hundred of those have
no connection to any health threat, and are being done
as a gesture of good will. It has even retained a
public relations firm whose employees are paid up to
$180 an hour.
Dr. Tara O'Toole, the assistant secretary of energy for
environment, Safety, and Health, defended the money
spent on outside public relations, so far $17,000. She
said it is needed to address the inability of citizens
and scientists to communicate effectively.
"If you take scientists and put them in front of angry
citizens, they tend to act nervous, and that can be
misread as acting guilty," she said. "Then they revert
to language they're most comfortable with, which is
unintelligible to normal humans."
But Dr. Mary E. Hibberd, Suffolk County's health
director, said community relations is only part of
Brookhaven's problem. To her mind, the laboratory is
now answering for decades of pollution, unnecessary
secrecy and arrogance. "I think in large measure
they're paying for their past attitude," she said.
Brookhaven officials like to tell the story of the
laboratory's first days, when a group of scientists
took over an old Army camp in rural Long Island in 1947
and established a laboratory to conduct nuclear
research. The plant engineer activated the old
coal-powered heating plant, which belched a plume of
black smoke into the sky. The next day a neighbor
threatened to sue because, she said, the radiation was
upsetting her arthritis. The joke, of course, is that
the nuclear reactor had yet to be built.
The misunderstandings continued over the years. Inside
the guarded confines, scientists plumbed the depths of
nuclear physics; outside, residents worried about the
dangers of radioactive material and occasionally
swapped tales of mutant wildlife. Now and then, the lab
would express outrage about a misleading news account.
But, as Brookhaven historian Robert P. Crease says,
"Scientists are not often well-equipped to deal with
At the same time, Brookhaven laboratory, like any other
manufacturing site, went about its business unfettered
by environmental laws. Its employees dumped industrial
solvents and low-level radioactive waste around the
5,300-acre property. They also injected ethylene
dibromide, a pesticide, into the soil of an
experimental garden plot. The stew of contamination
soaked into the ground above the aquifer that is the
source of Suffolk County's drinking water.
The lab adopted the Department of Energy stance of
being above compliance even after the passage of
various environmental-protection laws. But in the late
1980s, with the Cold War drawing to an end, the agency
entered an age of environmental enlightenment and
started tallying up the damage at its galaxy of
research laboratories and factories.
Brookhaven, which rarely worked with lethal nuclear
materials like plutonium, was ranked low on the list of
several dozen contaminated sites that included the
likes of Rocky Flats, Colo., and Hanford, Wash. Still,
it was declared a federal Superfund site. And, in 1987,
it signed an agreement to comply with Suffolk County's
sanitary codes, and to notify the county of any
"That whole agreement is based on trust," said the
health department's Dr. Hibberd.
But some residents and local environmentalists never
shared that trust, which has put Brookhaven in the
position of constantly trying to demonstrate its good
In 1995, for example, the laboratory planned to
overhaul its sewage-treatment plant, and received a
state permit to dump ground water containing traces of
tritium into a dry riverbed that leads to the Peconic
River. Environmental groups said the plan was
potentially harmful, even though both Brookhaven and
Suffolk County officials said that the tritium
concentrations would have been well below acceptable
Brookhaven chose to mollify the community and changed
its plant design. The cost: $600,000, plus an
additional $20,000 in yearly operating expenses. "We
backed down because of public outrage," Ms. Rowe, the
The year 1996 only brought more problems, as
Brookhaven's past continued to haunt it.
It announced the discovery of an underground plume of
industrial solvents that had crept beyond the property,
but much deeper than the private wells of any homes. In
what was intended as a magnanimous gesture, the
laboratory offered to pay for hook-ups to the county's
public water system for several hundred homes, at a
cost of $4.3 million.
The offer backfired. Other residents clamored for
hook-ups, arguing that the laboratory would not have
made such a gesture if everything was all right.
"Even actions that are well-intended can be
misinterpreted," Casey, of Brookhaven, said.
Brookhaven spent the rest of the year trying to
recover. It issued news releases that detailed what the
laboratory has done for the world and for the local
community. One release, called "Common Myths About
BNL," sought to dispel several rumors. One was that it
does research on space aliens; another was that it
"pollutes the environment shamelessly."
Then came the most distressing discovery, one certain
to drive the community into a frenzy: the laboratory
had a spreading underground plume of radioactive
For years, Suffolk County health officials had begged
the laboratory to bolster the containment of the
spent-fuel pool that sits at the bottom of the High
Flux Beam Reactor. The tank holds 68,000 gallons of
highly radioactive water, county officials said, and
they were not confident in its design.
There was good reason. Before the reactor was opened in
1965, some designers questioned the tank's integrity,
which included tile and reinforced concrete. To allay
those concerns, layers of asphalt and felt were added,
Casey said. "Clearly, in hindsight, that was not an
Finally, in 1994, Brookhaven made a concession. Rather
than shut down the reactor -- which is crucial to
dozens of research projects -- it would place
monitoring wells in the shadow of the reactor. But
budget cuts delayed the plan, which had been given a
low priority, and the wells were not installed until
the summer of 1996.
In December, the lab learned that well testing had
detected traces of tritium, a radioactive isotope of
hydrogen, and more tests were ordered. In January, the
results showed a spike in the level of tritium; it was
well above the drinking-water level suggested movement.
"At that point it clearly became urgent to us," Casey
said. A few days later, the test results were shared
with the public.
Dr. Henry J. Bokuniewicz, an oceanographer and director
of the Long Island Groundwater Research Institute at
the State University at Stony Brook, agreed with county
and Federal officials that the tritium at Brookhaven
poses no foreseeable health threat. Every 12.3 years,
half of what exists disappears through natural decay,
he said. And as the source is cut off, the plume should
Other chemicals, from lawn fertilizer to gasoline,
taint Long Island's ground water every day, he said,
adding, "But the tritium problem is something
Exoticism is not what Brookhaven desired for its 50th
anniversary. Since the initial tritium revelation, news
from the former Army camp has only worsened.
Dr. Nicholas Samios, who announced this month that he
was stepping down as the laboratory's director,
admitted to a county legislative committee that the lab
should have discovered the tritium plume years earlier.
And the Department of Energy dispatched a team from
Washington to deal with the matter, raising more
"The fact that the leak in the fuel pool was not
discovered sooner is a symptom that something is awry
in the decision-making process, either at the lab or in
the Department of Energy or both," said Dr. O'Toole of
the Energy Department. "More assiduous management might
have detected the leak sooner and lessened the amount
of tritium in the aquifer."
Then, two weeks ago, there came another blow. Federal
energy officials tested the contents of an old
underground tank and found it contained strontium 90, a
radioactive variant of calcium, at a concentration more
than 280 times the federal limit for drinking water.
The tank was first located in 1991, and then apparently
The revelation raised more questions about the lab's
commitment to its compliance agreement with Suffolk
County, said Dr. Hibberd. "We went back through our
records, and they hadn't told us about that," she said.
"It makes you wonder and it makes you concerned."
Sarah Nuccio, a community activist who lives in nearby
Manorville, agreed. "They go around with this regular
traveling road show to all the communities saying
'Don't worry,' " she said."But then the strontium 90
shows up -- lost in the system. That hardly builds
Friday, Brookhaven officials announced that it will
take another year to remove the spent fuel rods from
the tank that sits beneath the reactor. During that
time, the tank will continue to leak.
Other Places of Interest on the Web
* Brookhaven National Laboratory
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Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company
Brookhaven National Lab (BNL) Contaminates Groundwater
Tens of Millions of Taxpayer Dollars Needed for Clean-Up
WHO IS ACCOUNTABLE?
"Accountability" was a key concept of the Environment, Health and
Safety (ES&H) policy announced by Department of Energy (DOE)
Secretary John Herrington in 1985, following a number of
revelations of serious deficiencies in ES&H programs in DOE (the
current estimate for clean-up of DOE sites is 250 *BILLION*
dollars.) His successors, Energy Secretaries James Watkins and
Hazel O'Leary re-iterated "accountability" as a key concept in
their respective Environment, Safety and Health policies for DOE.
Twelve years later, in 1997, DOE and DOE contractor managers are
still unaccountable for their environment, safety and health
record. The recently discovered tritium contamination at BNL is
inexcusable, if not criminal - there were too many warnings; too
many regulations and standards that were ignored or violated; too
many lies and unmet commitments; and too many involved people
who, for too many years, knew that the High Flux Beam Reactor's
(HFBR, i.e. "reactor") spent fuel storage pool - unlined, with no
leak detection system, with high levels of tritium contaminated
water - was a "nightmare waiting to happen" to Long Island's
Now it has happened and, according to DOE's top safety official,
Dr. Tara O'Toole, no one is accountable. Instead, according to
DOE, those responsible for this debacle will be authorized to
spend additional tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to
remediate the result of their dereliction of duty. It's like
"paying the killer to find the body."
The recently discovered tritium leak, just like the 1994 Tristan
fire, strongly evidences that at one or both of the following is
true at BNL:
o Those responsible for the safe operation of the reactor are
o There is coercive, repressive, "chilled" atmosphere for
safety in DOE and BNL that allows known serious
environmental, safety and health deficiencies to exist and
persist for many years.
If BNL is competent to safely operate the reactor, there should
be extensive documentation, going back to the early 1980's, of
the significant environmental risks its underdesigned spent fuel
pool posed to Long Island's environment. These risks should be
fully documented in the current reactor Safety Analysis Report,
in the events leading up to the safety shutdown of the reactor in
1989, and in the 1993 Spent Fuel Vulnerability Report, if not
My experiences as a long time (five years) concerned employee
(and soon to be three time "prevailing" whistleblower) in DOE
clearly illustrate the "chilled" atmosphere for safety in DOE.
Any DOE or DOE contractor employee who has the temerity to
"commit the truth" by voicing concerns about any significant
environment, health and safety deficiency in DOE is risking his
or her livelihood.
At the reactor, responsible BNL employees and DOE officials
apparently justified their silence about the significant design
weaknesses of the spent fuel storage pool and the possibility of
tritium leakage to the environment, by realizing that BNL and
DOE, to avoid the lengthy reactor shutdown required to implement
an expensive design upgrade for the reactor's spent fuel pool,
would likely "resolve" their safety concern by firing them and
then blacklisting them in the nuclear power industry.
DOE is self-regulating in worker and nuclear safety. My
organization, DOE's Office of Assistant Secretary for
Environment, Safety and Health (EH), (headed by Dr. Tara O'Toole)
is responsible to establish policy for environment, safety and
health programs in DOE and to oversee their implementation. It
bears a major measure of responsibility for the current tritium
contamination of the groundwater at BNL, a point completely
ignored in the recently issued EH report. Any EH official who
"commits the truth" about this point is putting his or her career
in the balance.
Here are questions that DOE and BNL should publicly answer:
o Why doesn't the upgraded reactor Safety Analysis Report
identify the unlined, without leak detection, and tritium
contaminated, spent fuel storage pool as an environmental
and safety risk?
o Why doesn't the 1993 EH issued (Dr. O'Toole approved it)
"DOE Spent Fuel Storage Facility Vulnerability Report"
identify as "vulnerabilities" the lack of a liner and leak
detection system in the inherently tritium contaminated
reactor spent fuel storage pool?
o Given the environmental and safety risks the reactor spent
fuel pool posed, and its significant design weaknesses by
applicable standards, why are there no documented "employee
concerns" or "differing professional opinions" about this
If you are concerned about the environment and safety at BNL,
including the protection of concerned employees from unlawful
whistleblower reprisal, please do the following:
o Contact Senator D'Amato, Congressman Forbes, New York State
Attorney General Vacco and/or Suffolk County Legislator
Michael Caracciolo to express support and appreciation for
their March 19, 1997 call for accountability for those
responsible, in BNL and DOE, for this environmental
o Contact Dr. Tara O'Toole, DOE's Assistant Secretary for
Environment, Safety and Health and demand she request the
Department of Justice investigate her subordinate managers'
unlawful and baseless attempt to strip my "Q" security
clearance, a condition of my employment in DOE, in reprisal
for my voicing concerns about the investigation of the 1994
Tristan Fire at the reactor.
Dr. O'Toole is ultimately responsible for the security and
safeguards oversight program for America's nuclear arsenal,
but instead of rooting out her corrupt subordinate managers
who abused DOE's security program to unlawfully silence me,
she "looks the other way at it." Dr. O'Toole is the DOE's
top safety official - DOE has physical custody of hundreds
of nuclear weapons and hundreds of tons of nuclear weapons
grade uranium and plutonium - the corruption in DOE is truly
terrifying in its possibilities.
I'm a licensed Professional Engineer with 20 years experience in
nuclear power - six years as a Naval Officer on submarines, seven
years at three commercial nuclear power plants, and seven years
in DOE. My actions as an knowledgeable employee of DOE are
accountable, responsible, and consistent with the "Code of Ethics
for Government Service" and the "Code of Ethics for Engineers."
Dereliction of duty is a strong allegation, but it's the one I
think appropriate in this situation. Where does the buck stop in
DOE and BNL? Who's accountable?
Joseph Carson, P.E.
Senator Alfonse D'Amato (attention Mr. Peter Phipps) 520 Hart
Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510; (202) 224-6542; fax
(202) 224-5871; <Senator_Al@damato.senate.gov>
Congressman Michael Forbes (attention Ms. Alexis Mathios) 416
Cannon House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515; (202) 225-
3826; fax (202) 225-3143; <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Attorney General Dennis Vacco (attention Mr. Marc Carey) Office
of the Attorney General, The Capitol, Albany, NY 12224; (518)
473-5525; fax (518) 473-9907; <NYSAG@www.oag.state.ny.us>
Legislator Michael Caracciolo, First District, 633 East Main
Street, Riverhead, NY 11901; (516) 852-3200; fax (516) 852-3203.
Dr. Tara O'Toole, US Department of Energy, 1000 Independence
Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20585; (202) 586-6151; fax (202) 586-
Joseph Carson, P.E., 10953 Twin Harbour Drive, Knoxville, TN
37922; (423) 675-0236; fax (423) 966-1675;
Foundation for Accountable Brookhaven National Laboratory
Endeavors (FABLE) <www.bnlfable.com> (Note: All the above
people can be automatically contacted, via email, from FABLE's
(Note: I want to publicly recognize Mr. Frank Ucciardo of WPIX-
11 TV in NYC for his hardhitting and accurate coverage of this