skip to main content

Title: Approximating dose and risk for contaminants in groundwater from the underground nuclear test areas of the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS)

As part of the Environmental Management Program at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), the Underground Test Area (UGTA) Activity investigates the potential impacts of radionuclides that were introduced into groundwater from the underground nuclear tests conducted near or below the NNSS water table between 1951 and 1992. Groundwater models are being used to simulate contaminant transport and forecast contaminant boundaries that encompass areas where the groundwater has a five percent or greater probability of containing contaminants above the Safe Drinking Water Act Maximum Contaminant Levels (SDWA MCLs) at any time during the next 1,000 years. Transport modeling conducted for the Frenchman Flat Corrective Action Unit (CAU) at the NNSS identified the beta/photon-emitting radionuclides tritium (3H), carbon-14 (14C), chlorine-36 (36Cl), technetium-99 (99Tc), and iodine-129 (129I) as having the greatest influence in defining the farthest extent of the modeled CAU contaminant boundary. These same radionuclides are assumed here as the contaminants of concern (COCs) for all underground nuclear tests at the NNSS because models are not yet complete for the other CAUs.Potential public exposure to the COCs will only occur and be of concern if the COCs migrate into the groundwater beneath public or private lands at levels that exceed eithermore » individual SDWA MCLs or dose and risk limits. Groundwater flow directions strongly suggest that any contaminant boundary predicted by contaminant fate and transport modeling to overlap public or private lands is more likely to occur to the west and/or southwest of the NNSS and the adjacent Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR). Well-established, rural communities exist in these directions. Estimates of representative activity concentrations at the applicable SDWA MCL were developed for the five COCs. It is assumed that these COC concentrations may collectively occur at some public or private location in the future, but that situation does not exist today. These representative activity concentrations are evaluated with respect to conforming collectively to a modern annual committed effective dose (CED) and lifetime excess cancer morbidity risk for a hypothetical reasonably maximally exposed individual (RMEI). This approach goes beyond the SDWA MCL focus of the contaminant boundary because individual COC concentrations may comply with the SDWA MCL but not collectively meet the modern health-protection metrics and the SDWA language, especially if future modeling studies or monitoring activities show multiple radionuclides from different SDWA MCL categories to be COCs. For the drinking water exposure pathway alone, the annual committed effective dose (CED) for the RMEI from all five COCs that are collectively at estimated activity concentrations equal to their SDWA MCL is well below the U.S. Department of Energy health-protective CED limit of 100 millirem (mrem)/yr. This is consistent using both the NNSS unclassified, 1992 decay-corrected radionuclide atom inventory and the atom inventory based on radionuclides measured in groundwater obtained from the ALMENDRO cavity in 2009 to calculate the SDWA MCL activity concentrations in groundwater. The RMEI’s total lifetime excess cancer risk from the drinking water exposure pathway for both atom inventories is within the range of 1 × 10 -4 to ≤ 1 × 10 -6, which is considered health protective according to modern SDWA MCL regulatory language. The biosphere exposure pathways are drinking water, garden produce, animal products, inadvertent soil ingestion, and indoor and outdoor air inhalation. The exposure parameters for communities west and southwest of the NNSS were developed when the Yucca Mountain high-level, nuclear-waste disposal facility was under consideration. For all biosphere exposure pathways, calculations of the annual CED and lifetime excess cancer morbidity risk for the RMEI revealed that: 1) The annual CED is well within health-protective guidance (<< 100 mrem CED/yr) for the COC activity concentrations at the SDWA MCL, regardless of the atom inventory used. 2) The calculated 70-year lifetime excess cancer morbidity risk (6 x 10 -5) is within the health-protective range when the five COC activity concentrations are derived using the NNSS 1992 atom inventory, but it is at the upper limit of the acceptable range (1 x 10 -4) using the ALMENDRO 2009 atom inventory. 3) Tritium (3H) is the principal COC for producing annual dose and lifetime excess cancer risk, regardless of the atom inventory used. 4) Overall, the drinking water ingestion pathway is the dominant exposure pathway contributing to the total annual CED and lifetime excess cancer risk, followed by eating locally grown produce and animal products. 5) When tritium completely decays (after about 100 years), the RMEI’s lifetime risk will fall well within the health-protective range (i.e., 1 × 10-4 to ≤ 1 × 10 -6) and 36Cl will then become the most important contributor to the RMEI’s total annual CED and lifetime excess cancer morbidity risk from eating local produce and animal products. In the event that radionuclide concentrations begin to approach SDWA MCLs, a reasonable risk-management strategy for keeping lifetime risk more in compliance with regulatory guidance would be to use local sources of groundwater that are below SDWA MCLs or to limit the consumption of local produce and animal products that have ingested COC-contaminated groundwater. The viability of the latter strategy increases where the annual CED due to 36Cl approaches that of 3H.The dose and risk values calculated here for an RMEI are specific to the assumption that the five COCs occur in groundwater beneath public or private lands at concentrations that are collectively at the SDWA MCL. Currently, these COCs are essentially absent from groundwater beneath public or private lands beyond the boundaries of the NNSS and NTTR other than at very low, naturally occurring concentrations. The analyses presented here can be readily applied to determine dose and risk for COC concentrations actually measured in future monitoring samples.« less
 [1] ;  [1] ;  [1]
  1. Desert Research Inst. (DRI), Las Vegas, NV (United States)
Publication Date:
OSTI Identifier:
Report Number(s):
DOE Contract Number:
Resource Type:
Technical Report
Research Org:
Nevada University, Reno, NV (United States). Desert Research Institute.
Sponsoring Org:
USDOE National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)
Country of Publication:
United States