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County receiving $1.3 million grant for groundwater testing

Nye County will soon conduct groundwater sampling in areas near the Nevada National Security Site.

Officials last week accepted a $1,277,000 grant award to Nye County from the Department of Energy for a Tritium Groundwater Monitoring Program that will be used to determine levels of radioactive contamination around the site located about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Under the five-year grant that will be disbursed in increments of $252,000, Nye County will sample 10 wells downgradient from the security site this year and 20 wells per year thereafter.

County Geoscientist John Klenke said the tritium sampling is part of the Community Environmental Monitoring Program -- a network of monitoring stations located surrounding the security site that monitor air and groundwater for radioactivity that could result from the site's activities.

In 2013, the DOE discontinued monitoring locations upgradient of the security site, formerly known as the Nevada Test Site, or in hydrologic flow systems unrelated to the system in which the security site is located. As part of community-based groundwater sampling, Nye County will select locations for inclusion for the county's groundwater monitoring program based on proximity to groundwater flow paths, boundaries of the former test site and public water supply systems.

"This is only a small part of the five-year grant," Klenke said. "The larger part of the grant is for Nye County to be involved in the Underground Test Area (UGTA) preemptive review meetings. UGTA is the DOE program responsible for characterizing the groundwater contamination on the NNSS. They do this by drilling wells, taking groundwater samples, building computer models and process validation."

The monitoring program is a joint initiative between the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Field Office and the Desert Research Institute. The network stations, located in California, Nevada and Utah are made up of instruments that collect various environmental data, according to its website.

During the years of Yucca Mountain funding, the Nye County Nuclear Waste Repository Project Office was put in place by the county to conduct oversight and independent scientific research.

"We spent millions of dollars on water science with the expectation that if there was any risk to the residents of Nye County it would mainly be through water contamination," Project Office Director Darrell Lacy said. "The areas we covered also looked at the Nevada Test Site since it is the same water flow systems. The only contamination that has been found offsite is a small amount of tritium on Air Force land a couple of miles from the NNSS. This is northeast of Beatty."

According to the data provided by the Underground Testing Area review and water sampling, tritium is the primary analyte of concern, because of its high mobility in the groundwater. It can serve as an indicator of contaminant migration from nuclear testing and is also the only radionuclide that exceeds the Safe Water Drinking Act maximum contaminant level outside of the nuclear test cavities.

Nye County will collect water samples and send them to an independent laboratory for analysis.

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