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SRS officials use trees to suck up nuclear contamination

The following story from the Associated Press was published in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. We are reprinting it here as part of an ongoing effort to keep our readers informed on recent nuclear events.

The Savannah River Site's operators are using trees as a new way to suck nuclear contamination out of groundwater.

The process, called phytoremediation, uses the roots of plants and trees to absorb tritium and other radioactive material found throughout the site near Aiken where nuclear material for bombs was once produced.

"Our objective is to keep it out of the groundwater," said Dean Hoffman, program manager of environmental remediation, adding that no contamination has spread from the SRS site so far.

The old cleanup process involved pumping contaminated groundwater into the air where chemicals were released.

By using trees and plants, SRS's operators say they are saving millions.

"Phytoremediation is not any faster than pump and treat systems," said Bob Blundy of Westinghouse's remediation unit.

"It is more natural, passive and not as expensive."

Nuclear material drawn into the plant "is used in normal plant tissue," said Lee Newman of the Savannah Ecology Laboratory. "The projects going on here are fairly good from engineering and scientific standpoints."

Loblolly pines, popular and willows are often used in the process because they are sturdy, have deep roots and can withstand the contamination.

The process is particularly effective on tritium because it dissolves more quickly than other contaminants, said Greenville health physicist Kevin Taylor, who has been involved in groundwater cleanups.

"Their cells can be affected like ours, but there is not central nervous system in a plant," he said.

SRS is one of only a few federal facilities in the country to use phytoremediation, said Bill Taylor, a spokesman for the Energy department.

"Almost instantly, downstream tritium reading went spiraling down," Taylor said.

Newman estimates the groundwater should be cleaned up to acceptable standards within 20 years.

Tom Temples, a geologist at the University of South Carolina called phytoremediation a "pretty nifty tool."

"Some plants have a natural ability to absorb those contaminants, break them down and make use of them," he said.