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N-sites may never be safe for the public

SHARE N-sites may never be safe for the public

WASHINGTON — Most of the sites where the federal government built nuclear bombs will never be cleaned up enough to allow public access to the land, and the plan for guarding sites that are permanently contaminated is inadequate, the National Academy of Sciences said Monday in a report.

"At many sites, radiological and nonradiological hazardous wastes will remain, posing risks to humans and the environment for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years," the report said. "Complete elimination of unacceptable risks to humans and the environment will not be achieved, now or in the foreseeable future."

The idea that the production of nuclear weapons has produced "national sacrifice zones," land that the public can never use again, is not new. The term became common in environmental circles in the late 1980s, when the United States began recognizing the environmental legacy of the Manhattan Project and the Cold War.

But the academy's report, commissioned by the Energy Department, goes a further. It says that the government can try to declare certain areas permanently off-limits, but it does not have the technology, money and management techniques to prevent the contamination from spreading.

In addition, some of the contaminants have already "migrated" outside plant boundaries and others will follow, the report said.

Thomas M. Leschine, the chairman of the committee that wrote the report, said site managers could use barbed wire and post guards at the sites.

But Leschine, of the University of Washington, added: "There's no assurance that we can maintain any of that control. It's one thing to put a fence up around something, but it's really something else to maintain it in perpetuity."

The report said that no plan written now to minimize the spread of uncontained wastes would suffice over the tens, hundreds or even thousands of years that some of the contaminants would remain dangerous.

It urged the department to assume that engineered barriers like concrete and steel would eventually fail, and that most of what was known about the behavior of contaminants in air, soil or water might "eventually be proven wrong." The department needs a long-term program that "actively seeks out and applies new knowledge," the report said.