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.”