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Radioactive Rabbit Droppings Help Spur Nuclear Cleanup

John Roach
for National Geographic News
October 21, 2009
 
Putting a new spin on the term "nuclear waste dump," radioactive droppings from Cold War-era critters have spurred a high-tech cleanup funded by the current U.S. government economic stimulus program.

Government contractors this September flew a helicopter equipped with radiation detectors and GPS equipment over scrubland in eastern Washington State near the vast Hanford Site, a 1950s plutonium-production complex.

The goal was to pinpoint soils contaminated with harmful radioactive materials that had been spread far a field within the complex by animals and the wind.

The tainted soils are to be removed in an effort to stop the waste from leaching into the local water supply, where it could cause cancer in humans. (Related: "Fluorescent Bird Droppings Reveal Bluebird Flight Paths.")

Animals "Loved" Radioactive Waste

The contractors ocused on a 14-square-mile (36-square-kilometer) patch adjacent to an area at Hansford where trenches had been filled with 50 million gallons (189 million liters) of nuclear waste.

At the time, the nearly 600-square-mile (1,550-square-kilometer) site was producing plutonium for U.S. nuclear weapons.

As unappetizing as nuclear waste might sound, its radioactive salts strontium and cesium were apparently irresistible to rabbits, badgers, and other wild animals.

"They loved it," Bo Weir, project manager for CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation Company, the government contractor, told the Tri-City Herald newspaper, which first reported the helicopter flights.

Radioactive Waste Spreading

In Hanford's heyday, critters would burrow into the trenches, lick up the salty waste, and carry it away in their digestive tracts, Dee Millikin, a spokesperson for the government contractor, told National Geographic News.

The majority of the waste, though, was spread by the wind, she said.

The trenches were capped in 1969 with sand and gravel. The mid-century animals are of course long gone, and the spreading has since ceased, according to surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Taxpayer-Funded Stimulus Project

The tab for the U.S. $300,000 project was paid for with funds provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the Obama stimulus program.

Ground crews would have cost approximately $700,000 more and taken months to complete the mapping, Milliken said.

"We are bringing workers in quicker by using the aerial surveys."

Using the survey map, a subcontractor will send out a team to remove the contaminated soil—radioactive droppings and all—and transport it to Hanford's site for low-level waste, Milliken said.
 

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