Amchitka Biological Monitoring Program Oversight

Amchitka, named by the Aleuts (Unangan) who’ve inhabited the Aleutian Islands for thousands of years until the late 1700’s. The island is one of the North Pacific Aleutian Chain’s islands and it is located approximately 1340 miles west southwest from Anchorage, Alaska, and 870 miles east of Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, of the Russian Far East.  It is 42 miles long, and 1-4 miles wide. Early Russians referred to this island as Ostrov Amchitka.

Amchitka was the site of some of the earliest American and Canadian victories during WWII, having been retaken from the Japanese in January of 1943. A large contingency of USA military personnel and aircraft operated from Amchitka through the end of WWII.

The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission created a nuclear testing facility on Amchitka in the early 1960’s. A total of three subterranean nuclear test explosions were conducted on Amchitka during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The first detonation was of an 80 kiloton bomb known as “Long Shot” some 2,359 below the surface on the 29th of October, 1965. The second was “Milrow,” a one megaton device, exploded on the 2nd of October, 1969, 4,000 feet below the surface of the island. The third device, Cannikin, weighing in at 5 megatons, was detonated 5875 feet below ground level on the 6th of November, 1971. Cannikin was the largest underground nuclear explosion in U.S. history. The Amchitka testing facility was closed in 1994, accompanied by an on-going U.S. Government effort at cleaning up the residual radioactive, chemical, and other hazardous waste left on the island. While there is an airstrip on Amchitka, it is currently restricted to U.S. Government flights only.

Tritium (a radioactive isotope of hydrogen with a half-life of 12.3 years and also a “fingerprint” left by a nuclear detonation) was detected in surface water samples collected near the Long Shot test site. Tritium activity was monitored in samples of surface water and shallow groundwater from 1965 to 2001. The maximum detected concentration was about 16,000 picocuries per liter in 1966. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standard for tritium is 20,000 picocuries per liter. Tritium concentrations in surface water and shallow groundwater samples around the Long Shot test site are decreasing faster than would be predicted from radioactive decay alone, indicating that dilution is also a factor.

In addition to the three underground test sites, six other sites were considered for possible nuclear testing. Large-diameter emplacement holes were drilled at two of the sites, and an exploratory hole was drilled at a third. These holes have been backfilled with native soils. The remaining sites were not drilled. A total of approximately 195 acres was disturbed by these activities.

Because tritium concentrations are below drinking water standards, tritium was not considered a contaminant of concern in fresh water. In 2001, all shallow monitoring wells under DOE purview were plugged in agreement with Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation requirements. Groundwater monitoring was discontinued at the Amchitka site. Drilling mud pits were stabilized by mixing the drilling mud with clean soil from a borrow area, homogenizing the mixture, and covering with a 30-mil (0.03 inch)-thick polyester geomembrane. The geomembrane was covered with 3 feet of soil and vegetated with a seed mixture.

All disturbed areas, including the soil borrow areas, were planted with the seed mix and covered with an erosion control blanket. Contents of the underground storage tanks at the former asphalt mixing plant were removed and shipped off site to an approved waste disposal facility. The tanks were filled with native soil, and the openings were grouted with concrete and closed in place.

Because no practicable technology exists to remove the radioactive material from the underground cavities formed by the nuclear tests, DOE will leave the material in place. The selected remediation for the subsurface is monitoring of biota species. Monuments have been placed at each of the surface ground zero sites (locations of underground disturbances) to designate the presence of the detonation test cavities.

The Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association (APIA) is a member of the team responsible for monitoring Amchitka for leaks of radionuclides. In 2016 Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association staff will join the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Legacy Management monitoring survey to Amchitka Island in the western Aleutian Islands. As a continuation of the environmental monitoring that has taken place on Amchitka Island since 1965, in the summer of 2016 we will collect biological and seawater samples from the marine and terrestrial environment of Amchitka Island adjacent to the three detonation sites and at a background or reference site, Adak Island, 180 miles to the east. Samples will likely be analyzed for test-related radionuclides; americium-241 (241Am), 137Cs, plutonium-239 (239Pu) and -240 (240Pu), and tritium as well as uranium-234 (234U), -235 (235U), and -238 (238U). We expect to see a signal from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and report those findings probably by early 2017.

The APIA Amchitka project manager is: Bruce Wright, Senior Scientist, Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, 1131 E. International Airport Rd., Anchorage, AK 99518-1408, (phone) 907-222-4260, (fax) 907-279-4351, (email) brucew@apiai.org

 

Fukushima Update March 2014

 

Dr. Edwin Lyman is an internationally recognized expert on nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism as well as nuclear power safety and security expert and a senior scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program. He earned a doctorate degree in physics from Cornell University in 1992.

Bruce Wright of APIA asked Dr. Lyman “Does the leaking radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant pose any risk to the United States? Is it safe to eat fish caught on the U.S. West Coast?”

Dr. Lyman replied, “Radioactively contaminated water from Fukushima is expected to reach waters off Oregon’s coast as early as this April and the California coast sometime later this year, according to computer simulations of water currents, but it will not pose a significant health threat. As the radioactive plumes travel across the great expanse of the Pacific, they will become so diluted that any radiation exposure from swimming in the ocean off the West Coast or eating locally caught fish is likely to be well below national and international regulatory limits.

Conversely, one should exercise caution in eating fish caught in the western Pacific near Fukushima, where contamination levels remain high. The Japanese government closed most local fisheries after the accident and they are closely monitoring them, and scientists have found high radioactivity levels in bottom-feeding species from the isotopes that have accumulated in ocean floor sediment. Tuna and other large commercial fish that could ingest radioactive material near the site and migrate long distances would quickly flush out most of the radioactive cesium-137, a byproduct of nuclear fission. Certain species that tuna and other predatory fish eat whole, such as sardines, may pose a greater hazard because strontium-90, a radioactive isotope now being detected in the waters off Fukushima, accumulates in bones. Therefore, it is critical that the Japanese government continue to monitor radioactivity levels in certain types of fish before they enter the food supply. Apparently the Japanese government is doing that, although it may not be sufficient to prevent contaminated fish from occasionally reaching the market. 

On February 27, (2014) for example, the Japanese fisheries agency found a fish called Hilgendorf’s saucord in the ocean near Fukushima with elevated levels of radioactive contaminants. The agency immediately prohibited the sale (pdf) of any Hilgendorf’s saucord on the market, and ordered a voluntary recall of the same type of fish that had been caught the day before, even though it had tested clean. This recent incident indicates there can be substantial variation in contamination levels.”

In 2016 Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association staff will join the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Legacy Management monitoring survey to Amchitka Island in the western Aleutian Islands. Samples will likely be analyzed for test-related radionuclides; americium-241 (241Am), 137Cs, plutonium-239 (239Pu) and -240 (240Pu), and tritium as well as uranium-234 (234U), -235 (235U), and -238 (238U). We expect to see a signal from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and report those findings probably by early 2017.