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Tracing Nuclear Contamination’s Effects May Be Impossible, Experts Say

March 16, 1986

RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) _ Experts say the health effects of massive radioactive emissions over the past 40 years at the federal Hanford nuclear reservation may never be known, because ″some of the information just plain doesn’t exist.″

Department of Energy documents reveal that more than 1 million curies of radioactive materials may have been released from the 570-square mile reservation on the Columbia River in south-central Washington.

The documents, reviewed by The Associated Press, were compiled from environmental reports and studies released Feb. 27 by the department in response to numerous requests for information about operations.

They show numerous planned and unplanned releases of contamination into the Columbia River, and into the air, groundwater and soil in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

Hanford opponents say the reports justify their fears about the safety of the reservation, but radiation experts say it may be impossible to determine whether health problems resulted.

Tim Connor, spokesman for a Spokane-based watchdog group labeled daily releases of 430 curies disclosed in a 1946 report ″the equivalent of a Three Mile Island accident every hour.″

But state and federal radiation experts say the amount of curies released is not as important as the radiation dose received by an individual.

The DOE says it is up to the states of Washington and Oregon to decide whether health studies are needed.

Radioactive iodine, such as that noted in the 1946 report, is attracted to the thyroid and can cause deformations or cancer.

Trying to determine doses that occurred 40 years ago would be complicated by lack of information about wind direction, dispersal of the radioactivity, where it came down and weather, said Todd Nelson of Battelle’s Pacific Northwest Laboratory, an industrial consulting and research concern.

″Some of the information just plain doesn’t exist,″ he said.

Bryce Breitenstein, president of the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation, agreed that determining health effects of the contamination would be difficult.

″An intensive epidemiological study going back to the 1940s would be a horrendous job,″ said Breitenstein, whose organization monitors the health of Hanford employees.

Last week, DOE advised 32 people tested last fall that no radioactive materials in excess of naturally occurring levels were found in the urine samples. The 32 lived east of the reservation.

A state study not find significant difference in the number of cancer- related deaths in the Hanford region and other parts of the state, said Terry Strong, director of the state Department of Social and Health Services’ radiation control section.

The state has asked the national Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to help review the documents and suggest possible epidemiologiocal studies that may be needed.

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