URI Graduate School of Oceanography Scientist Finds Cold War Nuclear Contamination

URI Graduate School of Oceanography Scientist Finds Cold War Nuclear Contamination in the Marine Environment Narragansett, R.I. — November 15, 2000 — The Cold War may be long gone, but it has left a legacy of nuclear contamination that will endure and may have far-reaching environmental effects. In fact, scientific investigations in the Russian Arctic into how radioactivity is transported through rivers and ocean currents reveal dangerously high levels of radioactive elements in the marine environment that could even eventually affect the waters off the coast of North America. Environmental concerns about such radioactive contamination have led to studies of Russian waste dumpsites, rivers, nuclear fuel reprocessing plants, and off-shore locations. In one study, URI Graduate School of Oceanography chemical oceanographer Dr. S. Bradley Moran, along with a team of U.S., Canadian and Russian scientists, has found some of the highest levels of radioactive plutonium ever measured in the marine environment in the sediments of Chernaya Bay, a former Soviet Union nuclear weapons test site. These elevated levels could threaten the local fishing industry. Moran’s work is funded by a multi-year grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation. His research was recently published in Continental Shelf Research and Earth and Planetary Science Letters. It is also featured in the latest issue of Maritimes, the University of Rhode Island’s marine science research magazine. Moran and his colleagues have investigated this part of the Arctic Ocean to determine how much radioactivity has settled into the sediments around Chernaya Bay and what effect, if any, this has had on the food chain. “These questions have a bearing on radioactive plutonium in Arctic marine sediments and the environmental impact of the only recorded detonation of nuclear weapons the Arctic Ocean,” said Moran. “They also address an important issue underlying many similar studies of the area: namely, the extent to which the Russian contamination represents a significant source of nuclear contamination for North American off-shore waters.” Moran’s research has revealed not only elevated levels of plutonium in the sediments, but also high levels of radioactive cesium and cobalt. Measurements taken of organisms in the sediments indicate that radioactive contamination has spread to the food chain. Because of restricted water flow from Chernaya Bay, contamination to the Barents Sea seems to be limited. However, measurements of sediments in the Barents Sea also indicate that the transport of plutonium from Chernaya Bay did occur, probably at the time of the original nuclear tests. Moran and his colleagues are currently investigating the possibility of another transport pathway that is bringing plutonium from Chernaya Bay to the central Arctic ocean. Contact: Lisa Cugini, 874-6642, lcugini@gso.uri.edu Visit the URI Graduate School of Oceanography website:www.gso.uri.edu