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Tests suggest heated nuclear waste from West Lake Landfill does not produce more radiation

Flares at the Bridgeton Landfill are used to burn off smelly underground gases.
Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio

Samples of radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill Bridgeton placed in contact with high heat did not increase production of a radioactive gas, according to a new study released by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Residents living near the landfill have long feared what could happen if the underground fire in the southern portion of the Superfund site were to reach the World War II-era radioactive waste about 700 feet away.

An analysis performed in 2014 by the EPA indicated that the interaction between the two could pose a risk to residents. It said that if officials capped the waste, an underground fire has the potential to break through and release radon, a radioactive gas that's linked to lung cancer, into the air.

To determine what could happen if radioactive waste comes in contact with heat, federal officials recently sent six samples from the landfill to a laboratory at the Southwest Research Institution in Texas. Researchers simulated wet and dry conditions the waste could be in should it interact with an underground fire.

"While the study indicates there would not be an increase in radon production from increased temperatures, natural radon production would continue and could be more readily released on site if there were cracks or fissures at the surface," the EPA's report said. 

Russ Knocke, spokesperson for landfill owner Republic Services, said the research supports a position that the company has made repeatedly to the public about the site. 

"There is just a vast growing body of research that continues to reassure and further inform the community that it's safe, that it's managed and the subsurface reaction is isolated," he said. 

However, some residents are skeptical that the study could accurately predict how this scenario would play out at the landfill. 

"I don't know how you can take the results done in the lab and compare it to the site," said Dawn Chapman, an area activist. 

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