CBR attacks nuclear waste risk

February 23, 2001

Heather Heilman

After more than five decades testing and producing nuclear weapons and three decades using nuclear power plants, the U.S. Department of Energy now faces an immense task: managing enormous amounts of waste and contamination produced by the nation's nuclear endeavors.

Luckily, they've got the help of the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research (CBR), which has been awarded a $2 million cooperative agreement-with the possibility of increased funding-from the DOE to help develop methods for improved stewardship of their nuclear waste sites across the country. There is a good fit between the CBR's unique abilities and the challenges faced by the DOE.

The potential match was recognized by Gene D'Amour, Tulane's vice president for institutional program development and government agency affairs, who was instrumental in procuring the grant. "Early on, it became clear that there was not enough money to clean up every environmental problem," D'Amour said. "You have to focus on that which has the greatest risk. So Congress is increasingly aware of the issue of risk assessment."

But compartmentalized, specialized government agencies have often lacked the perspective necessary to accurately evaluate risk, not to mention the ability to communicate effectively with those affected by the risk. But because the CBR has the ability to bring together experts from a wide range of fields, it can offer answers to questions about how different chemical contaminants interact with each other, how contaminants in the water affect the land and air, and, in general, how what happens on a molecular level affects an entire ecosystem.

The program will fund a variety of research and educational components and will involve approximately 20 faculty members from Tulane and Xavier universities. While radioactivity is an obvious concern, it is not the only concern, according to Doug Meffert, associate director for planning at the CBR and the principal investigator on the grant.

"We're looking at the whole process of waste-from 'cradle to grave'-of the entire nuclear-energy production enterprise," Meffert said. A large part of the program will involve conducting integrated risk assessments at DOE waste sites in order to determine if the sites are safe.

Tulane and Xavier researchers have developed new tools in the form of biosensors to conduct the assessments. Diane Blake, associate professor of opthalmology at Tulane, and her husband, Xavier professor Robert Blake, have invented a biosensor that allows re-searchers in the field to analyze water samples for compounds including heavy metals and hormone disrupters.

A larger version of the tool can be put in a "torpedo-like" autonomous underwater vehicle that will automatically take up to five samples and transmit the information to a geographical information system, a kind of dynamically updated database.

Transgenic species are another kind of biosensor. These are animals such as small fish that have been genetically altered so that they will glow when exposed to a particular contaminant. They are useful because they tell researchers whether or not local wildlife are being affected by contaminants throughout their life cycle. Other aspects of the program are centered on people and the communication of information.

Many of the sites are on or near American Indian reservations, so investigators will work with representatives of the various tribes that are affected. Tribal representatives will be trained to use the DOE database so that they can access the information they need, but they will also learn how to contribute to the fund of information by collecting environmental data and adding it to the geographical information system.

Also, the CBR will work with the DOE to help it improve the way it communicates information about risk, and better understand the way risk is perceived by the public.

"At the CBR, we're invested in the concept of communication," said John McLachlan, director of the CBR. "We want to take complex science and put it in terms that might not be simple, but that are understandable."

McLachlan sees this grant as an opportunity for the CBR to develop a model of environmental stewardship that could be put to use around the globe. "The CBR is starting to fulfill its promise," he said. "This is what we envisioned when we began 10 years ago."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000