LBL Scientists Lead First Russian-American Field Test in Chelyabinsk Nuclear Waste Site

September 21, 1994

Mike Wooldridge,

BERKELEY--Earth scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL) have embarked on the first-ever joint Russian-American field test of a nuclear waste site in the former Soviet Union.

The team is contributing expertise and equipment to a collaborative study of an area in Chelyabinsk, Russia. Lakes and rivers around Chelyabinsk have been a dumping ground for radioactive waste since the mid-1940s.

"The area is the most radioactively contaminated site in the world," said Chin-Fu Tsang, head of the Russian-American Center for Contaminant Transport Studies in LBL's Earth Sciences Division.

Joining Tsang on the trip are LBL researchers Harold Wollenberg and Ray Solbau, University of California at Berkeley graduate student William Frangos, Karen Stevenson of the U.S. Department of Energy's Environmental Measurement Laboratory and Michael Foley of Pacific Northwest Laboratory.

Over 10 days, the team will measure the spread of chemicals from Chelyabinsk's Lake Karachai, which alone contains 120 million curies of radioactive waste. In comparison, the Chernobyl accident in 1986 released 150 million curies of radiation.

Chemicals percolating from the lake are estimated to be heading toward the Myshelyak River, which could transport contaminants to drinking water wells in the area. "A concern is whether or not the contaminants will reach the well field, and if so, how soon and at what concentrations," Wollenberg said.

The team will make measurements of nitrates, chemicals that mix with the radioactive contaminants during industrial processing. Nitrates travel the fastest of the contaminants in the lake, and their measurement will serve as an important yard stick to determine how far the radioactive contaminants have spread.

Researchers will sample ground water from 100-meter-deep research wells in the area. The LBL scientists have shipped special "packer" apparatuses for the study, devices which block off sections of a well so scientists can pinpoint the depth of chemical movement by extracting liquids from different well elevations. Such detailed measurement of contamination depth in the area has never been done.

Samples taken from the wells will be split between the American and Russian researchers for separate testing and comparison. Scientists will use the results to create a three-dimensional model of area contaminants.

The team will also perform resistivity tests, which measure the presence of nitrate ions by applying an electrical charge to the soil.

LBL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California.

NOTE: The researchers will be in Russia from September 8 until September 25. Chin-Fu Tsang may be reached at (510) 486-5782 after the group's return.