Nuclear Fallout: Nevada Takes Hard Look at Contaminated Groundwater From Historic Testing Grounds

The Yucca Flat area of the Nevada Test Site is scarred with subsidence craters from underground nuclear testing

The Yucca Flat area of the Nevada Test Site is scarred with subsidence craters from underground nuclear testing. View larger image.

Decades of nuclear weapons testing has contaminated an estimated 1.6 trillion gallons of groundwater in the Nevada desert, a region where clean water is scarce and getting scarcer.

Nevada’s Cold War legacy is troubling state officials who are coping with water shortages and a population boom, the Los Angeles Times reported Friday. The state has won a federal agreement to conduct a new environmental assessment of the 1,375 square mile Nevada test site — 75 miles northeast of Las Vegas. They are determining the extent of nuclear contamination in the area and assessing cleanup or compensation for water lost.

The Nevada test site has hosted nuclear experimentation since 1951, with the first of a series of atomic tests at the then-named Nevada Proving Ground. Early tests were conducted above ground, creating mushroom clouds that could be seen from 100 miles while spreading radioactive fallout downwind. Later tests were conducted underground, leaving massive craters in the desert floor. Over 1,000 nuclear tests were conducted at the site until the research ended in 1992.

Nevada hydrogeologist Thomas S. Buqo studied the issue for Nevada’s Nye County, where the test site is located. He estimated that the underground tests polluted some 1.6 trillion gallons of water, which, if they hadn’t been contaminated, would be worth as much as $48 billion today.

There is no short-term danger of the water tainting community supplies, according to federal scientists. At its current rate of movement — three inches to 18 feet per year — the contaminated water won’t reach the nearest community for at least 6,000 years.

But local and state officials in Nevada still want the area to be studied for potential cleanup or fiscal compensation to the state.

“That water belongs to the people of Nevada,” said Republican state Assemblyman Edwin Goedhart of Nye County, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Even before any contamination comes off the test site, I look at this as a matter of social economic justice.”

Sources: The Los Angeles Times, U.S. Department of Energy Nevada Test Site website

Read More: Nevada Test Site Oral History Project, Origins of the Nevada Test Site (PDF)

2 replies
  1. michael smiith says:

    Hello my name is Michael Smith.

    I am really not sure where to go and thought you might send me in a direction,or if its doable.

    I have tried RECA and all the ones I thought may be relevant, at this point I am thinking about getting an attorney but thought your advice would be more feasible.

    I am 46 I have relapsing progressive Multiple Sclerosis they tell me (holes in spine/brain.)

    My Father worked at Mercury (Nevada nuclear test site) for 22 years, he drilled the holes they dropped bombs into, then steam cleaned the parts with water that were re-usable, after this he came home and held me as a baby, he is still alive and remembers everything, as does my family.

    My family is Smith/Jones, huge family, they all live in Oklahoma, yet no one but myself has ever had anything even close to this, this is not genetic, every instance of nuclear testing shows an increase in this condition, yet no one will take responsibility?

    There is way more to this story, I have Sisters with things of their own.

  2. michael scherer says:

    My mother and I were in nevada through the entire year of 1955. She died of cancer at 28n years old. I just had a kidney removed because of cancer. Any correlation or recourse?

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