Hanford Site Drums of low-level radioactive waste are stored or buried on the U.S.Department of energy's Hanford Site in Eastern Washington. Some of the waste contains small amounts of plutonium residue and will be shipped to a repository in New Mexico. Drums of non-plutonium waste are buried in approved disposal trenches.

Gerald van Belle
Gilbert S. Omenn
Elaine M. Faustman
Charles W. Powers
John A. Moore
Bernard D. Goldstein

When the history of the twentieth century is written 100 years from now, one of the chapters almost certainly will deal with nuclear fission and its applications in war and peace. We suspect that most of this chapter will focus on military applications, in particular, the frantic international races to develop atomic and hydrogen bombs, the secrecy surrounding their production, the people, land, water, and natural resources involved, and the consequent hazardous wastes. The scientific legacy of the twentieth century will include the radioactive sites at Hanford (Washington), Rocky Flats (Colorado), Savannah River (Georgia), and numerous other pieces. Unlike the seven wonders of the ancient world, these places will not become tourist attractions; instead, they should be made inaccessible for at least 3,000 years.

Efforts at nuclear waste cleanup have accelerated since the end of the Cold War. A change in national perspective dates back to the 1989 disintegration of the Soviet Union. In that year we finally stopped producing nuclear weapons. Since then the realization of the magnitude of the lethal legacy has become more widespread. The switch from production to cleanup has accelerated but has been restrained by institutional patterns: it is no small matter to change the course of the ship of state especially if there is disagreement among some of the crew, but in the last six years the commitment to cleanup has increased.

Cleanup options range between two extremes. The first is, "do nothing." This option is unacceptable because doing nothing will worsen the problem as buildings and structures deteriorate and contaminants spread through the soil, air, and groundwater. The other extreme - to restore all facilities and places to pre-1940 conditions - is also unacceptable because certain sites should not be used for thousands of years. Also, the financial resources needed for this process are enormous and rising. Just the intermediate effort built into present commitments and plans would cost $250 billion nationwide by 1990 estimates. More recent estimates for the cost of environmental recovery from the Cold War are as high as $2 trillion.

Why All the Fuss About Risk Assessment?

The nation used the ingenuity of patriotic, willing scientists to produce this environmental legacy; it is natural that society look to us for help with the critical task of cleanup. Assessment of the risks is central to developing a strategy for cleanup.

Risk assessment asks these five questions: (1) Is there a problem? (2) What is the nature of the problem? (3) How many people and what environmental areas are affected? (4) How can we summarize and explain the problem? (5) What can we do about it? Technically these questions are called hazard identification, dose-response assessment, exposure assessment, risk characterization, and risk management. This approach is a rational, but complicated process that provides a framework for cleanup. Assistant Secretary of Energy Thomas Grumbly stated that the need is "to establish the necessary, credible, scientifically based risk assessment program to define ... the major longterm public health and environmental risks at our sites. We'll do this in concert with our stakeholders, in concert with the public health community, in concert with you. Why we need to do this is not just to protect the public health, safety, and environment, but also to protect and use wisely the public tax dollars that we've been entrusted to manage." (from Building Consensus, page 9).

The Consortium

As shown in the sidebar, the Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation (CRESP) is a university-based national organization created to develop a credible strategy for providing the information needed for risk-based cleanup of complex contaminated environments, especially those for which the Department of Energy is responsible. The founders responded to a request early in 1994 by the Department of Energy (DOE), encouraged by the National Research Council, for an independent institutional mechanism capable of integrating such risk evaluation work. The impetus was their realization that cleanup costs were escalating and required new approaches. After a national competition, DOE eventually awarded a five-year cooperative agreement to the consortium in March 1995. Its activities are concentrated at the University of Medicine and Dentistry New Jersey, Rutgers University, and the University of Washington.
Stakeholder's table The consortium has three fundamental commitments: (1) to interact with stakeholders throughout the risk assessment process for definition and redefinition of priorities and evaluation of technical data; (2) to consider social, cultural, and economic values along with human health and ecosystem effects in a risk-based decision process at each site; and (3) to work actively and collegially with other organizations whose skills and capabilities can contribute to the better definition, understanding, and reduction of these risks. The consortium will not be a decision-maker at DOE sites, but will attempt to enrich the information and to validate the database for systematically assessing present and future risks, including those associated 
with management and restoration options. According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, a stakeholder is a "person entrusted with the stakes of two or more bettors."

While the dictionary definition suggests a degree of impartiality and indifference, current usage indicates a subtle shift in meaning: stakeholders are those persons, groups, and communities affected by the cleanup effort. Stakeholders comprise local citizens and local and regional businesses. One model for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation assumes that stakeholders are all groups living within 50 miles. Stakeholders also include signatories to federal, state, and tribal nation agreements. Indian Nations have separate sovereign status treaties with the U.S. government.

Management of radioactive, chemical, and physical hazards, and remediation of damage at DOE sites will require decades. The consortium's work focuses on current hazards, long-term effects, and importance of expeditious decision making and timing in implementing restorative action. The consortium conducts original research projects on various scientific, technical, occupational, and behavioral aspects of risk-based environmental management of such sites. The consortium's scientific work is organized into eight task groups (Figure 1). For its initial work the University of Washington component of the consortium is concentrating its efforts at Hanford, while the EOHSI group deals with the Savannah River site. Reasons for assigning the Hanford area to the UW include proximity and the university's many contacts in the state. The UW collaborates closely with the Division of Radiation Protection of the Washington State Department of Health, the Department of Labor and Industries, and the Department of Ecology
Founder of Consortium table

Why a University, based Consortium?

Four characteristics of universities that make such a consortium desirable, while not unique to them, are credibility, objectivity, creativity, and the ability to exploit serendipity Although university faculty have their biases and pet peeves, the peer-review process tends to create a degree of credibility and objectivity that is difficult to match. Also, the current cleanup challenge requires integration and creative approaches spanning a multitude of disciplines that are frequently concentrated in a research university Economic, cultural, ecological, occupational, and engineering aspects of risk must be integrated to
 develop a sound plan of action. A university also can explore unexpected ideas from students and faculty For example, members of the Data Characterization, Analysis, and Statistics Task Group developed a graduate course in geographical information systems and risk assessment in winter quarter. This course brought together graduate students and faculty from the departments of Geography, Environmental Health, and Public Affairs.

18-Month Goals and Activities of CRESP

The consortium has defined several projects for the period from September 1995 to March 1997.

1. Develop a holistic perspective of a site and share information with the community. We recognize that data are not collected in a vacuum. We have involved stakeholders and tribal nations from the start. An October 1995 UW workshop was attended by representatives from the Yakama Tribe, Nez Perce Tribe, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Each DOE site represents an array of diverse, complex activities. As the consortium assembles and reviews existing data and gathers additional data, it is developing systems and data mapping techniques that permit ready access and retrieval by consortium personnel, agency staff, lay persons, and other interested parties. We are organizing special training for primary care physicians in the community Our goal is to develop a data profile that embraces entire sites so that anyone can review activities at a specific locale.

2. Develop a common measurement for health risks. A gulf now exists between cancer risks and noncancer risks. We are using the concept of "benchmark dose" developed for cancer disease to provide a common denominator for evaluating health risks. Benchmark dose methodology specifies the amount of health risk we are willing to tolerate for each agent. This concept also will be considered for use with selected ecological health risks and other nonhealth endpoints. Developing a common measurement will facilitate the comparative assessment of risks across and within sites. Figure 2 shows how the maximum annual allowable radiation doses for nuclear workers have declined with increasing understanding of radiation effects. What was acceptable in 1940 is no longer acceptable in 1996. Thus, the solution in 1996 can't be the same as in 1940.
Fig. 2 Health Protection Standards Figure 2: Maximum allowable radiation exposure per year for nuclear workers. Standards are from diverse sources. This graph summarizes these various standards in a single, consistent set of numbers and measurement units. A rem is the quantity of ionizing radiation whose biological effect is equivalent to that produced by one roentgen of x-rays. 1928, first internationally accepted radiation standard (1/100th of the amount that burns skin, per month); 1931, tolerance dose is standardized at 72 rem per year, 1934, first international radiation safety standards based on damage to human tissue (30 rem per year), 1942, Manhattan Project begins; 1945, first atomic bombs; 1950, abandonment of "maximum permissible exposure," standards reduced to 30 rem per year; 1968, U.S. government changes its protection standard to the 5 rem per year recommended in 1958 by the National Academy of Sciences; 1990, the National Academy of Sciences asserts that radiation is almost nine times as damaging as estimated in its first report on biological effects published in 1972, and the international Commission on Radiation Protection recommends an annual dose of not more than I to 2 rem. (Adapted from: U.S. Department of Energy, 1995)
3. Review the effects and risks of tritium. The Consortium Independent Peer Review Committee is looking at data dealing with exposure and health effects of tritium, which has contaminated the Hanford Site (Figure 3). The review includes results of a recently completed epidemiological study by others of possibly associated effects of occupational exposures at the Savannah River Site. The nature and concentration of other radionuclides or chemicals that may be present as co-contaminants will be considered.

4. Improve estimates of radioactive exposure from the environment. The consortium will review the scientific procedures used to determine dose levels of radioactive chemicals received by target organs and cumulative dose where exposures to more than one radionuclide have occurred. The review also will consider the biological availability of radioactive and other chemicals from the soil or other substances in which they arc found at DOE sites.

5. Assess tasks for key chemicals. Although the consortium will not start an analysis of every chemical, it is assessing three or four key substances that drive chemical-based cleanup standards. These chemicals include the chlorinated solvents trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, and possibly carbon tetrachloride. These analyses are being tied to specific scenarios of occupational exposure and will use improved models of pharmacokinetics based on physiology.

6. Use bio-indicators to evaluate ecological risk. Wildlife inhabiting a contaminated site can be used to determine exposures and effects, which would differ for birds, fish, and mammals. The goal is to develop unified approaches to evaluate risk at different levels of ecological complexity This work initially involves studies of birds and fish at the Savannah River Site.

7. Assist DOE-EM in Budget Setting for 1998. The Environmental Management Program at DOE established a three-tier review process to align budgets with risks. The first level involves managers and administrators at DOE sites. The second and third tiers involve the consortium. In the second tier a panel of national experts assembled by the consortium reviewed consistency of risk descriptions within and among the 10 biggest DOE sites. This review was completed on May 1, 1996, and will aid DOE managers in setting 1998 budgets. In the third tier, the independent peer review committee headed by Dr. Arthur Upton is assessing the entire process and recommending improvements. That report will be completed by this July.
Hanford 1964-1993 Lethal Legacy Examples


The nation's task of containing and safely disposing of toxic waste, including site restoration, is daunting in magnitude, cost, and time required. The 75-year time line is especially daunting for nation that budgets annually and holds national elections every four years. Committed leadership that transcends these time periods is needed. We espouse a process of continual and meaningful interaction with all stakeholders and tribal nations. CRESPs role is to listen carefully, define information essential to effective dialogue and decision making, make information available in a form useful to stakeholders, and conduct technical and research studies that will fill gaps in knowledge.

Recommended Reading

Goldstein BD: The need to restore the public health base for environmental control. Am J Public Health 1995;85:481-483.

National Research Council: Building Consensus Through Risk Assessment and Management of the Department of Energy's Environment Remediation Program. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1994.

National Research Council:Improving the Environment: An Evaluation of DOE's Environmental Management Program. Washington DC: National Academy Press, 1995.

Omenn GS: Can systematic, integrated risk assessment with full stakeholder participation enhance cleanup at DOE's sites? In: GW Gee, R Wing (Eds). In-Situ Remediation: Scientific Basis for Current and Future Technologies, Part I. Richland, WA: Battelle Press, 1994, pp.xv-xxx

Ross JF: Risk: Where do real dangers lie? Smithsonian 1995; November, pp. 42-53, and December, pp. 43-40.

U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment: Complex Cleanup: The Environment Legacy of Nuclear Weapons Production, OTA-O-484, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991.

U.S. Department of Energy: Closing the Circle on the Splitting of the Atom. Washington DC: Office of Environmental Management, 1995.


We thank Scott Barnhart, Patty Boiko, Jim Karr, Tim Nyerges, and Maurice Robkin, who contributed directly and indirectly to this paper.

U.S. Department of Energy
Operators on the Hanford site use specialized equipment to obtain samples of highly radioactive waste stored in giant underground tanks. The samples help scientists better understand the waste to ensure safe storage until it can be prepared for final disposal. Hanford stores more than 55 million gallons of highly radioactive waste in 177 underground tanks; 67 of the older, single-shell tanks have leaked up to a million gallons into the surrounding soil.


Gerald van Belle, Ph.D., is professor of environmental health and biostatistics and chair of the Department of Environmental Health, UW School Of Public Health and Community Medicine.

Gilbert S. Omenn, M.D., Ph.D., is dean of the School of Public Health and Community Medicine and professor of environmental health, medicine, and medical genetics at the University of Washington.

Elaine M. Faustman, Ph.D., is professor and associate chair of the Department of Environmental Health, UW School of Public Health and Community Medicine.

Charles W. Powers, Ph.D., is executive director, Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation, located at the Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety Institute, New Jersey.

John A. Moore, D.V.M., is president, Institute for Evaluating Health Risks, Washington, DC.

Bernard D. Goldstein, M.D., is director, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety Institute, University of Medicine and Dentistry New Jersey and Rutgers University.

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Last update: 02/05/97