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Scientists search bay for radioactive waste
September 29, 1997

The University's National Undersea Research Center (NURC) this week is surveying for radioactive waste drums dumped in Massachusetts Bay, using its state-of-the-art remotely operated vehicles and other advanced technology from industry to detect the drums and determine their potential risks to the environment.

A portion of Massachusetts Bay, an oceanic coast east of Boston Harbor, was an industrial waste site from the 1940s through the 1970s, with the dumping of low-level radioactive waste permitted in the 1940s and 1950s.

"It is estimated that 4,000 radioactive drums and 100,000 waste drums could remain in the Bay," said Ivar Babb, NURC director.

Babb and his crew are spending eight days surveying the Bay with scientists and marine biologists from the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

Prior surveys in 1992 found the need for further study of the Bay, but no radioactivity has been found in fish and shellfish tested.

For this fifth EPA-funded survey, Raytheon has donated a multi-spectral laser line scanner it developed for the Navy that provides an image of the ocean floor and looks at the degree of fluorescence emitted from biological organisms so researchers can identify the targets as waste drums or just rocks or other natural objects. Once the target is identified as a drum, NURC's remotely operated vehicle (ROV) will descend with an instrument to measure for radioactivity. The researchers will be using precision navigation and a geographic information system (GIS) to map the targets.

Researchers must be careful when approaching objects in the sea not only because of possible radioactive waste, but also because old bombs or mines could have been dumped at the site, Babb said. Safety plans are in place if radioactive drums are detected, he said. The researchers plan to return for another week-long survey next year.

NURC is one of only six undersea centers in the nation that have been established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under the National Undersea Research Program. The program recently completed significant changes it terms a reinvention, to better align supported projects to NOAA's mission. As a result of the changes, NOAA has put NURP in its budget instead of relying solely upon Congress for funding.

The program provides researchers with advanced diving technologies to study biological, chemical, geological and physical processes in oceans and lakes such as the Gulf of Maine, the Southern New England Coast, Long Island Sound, the Great Lakes and areas of Israel, Africa and Siberia. NURC's advanced technologies permit research scientists to safely access continental shelf waters, the ocean floor and the deep waters of the Great Lakes through the use of occupied submersibles, robotic vehicles, and mixed-gas diving technologies. The program is leading investigations into the development of new research applications for the ROVs.

The primary function of NURC is to support the regional science community through the peer-reviewed proposal process. The center operates as a component of the Marine Sciences & Technology Center, but is funded by NOAA and supports scientists conducting research missions in New England, Long Island Sound, the Gulf of Maine, the Great Lakes and Georges Bank.

Changes made in the past year include an expanded new name - NURC-North Atlantic and Great Lakes - to better reflect the geographic scope of the center. Personnel changes include the promotion of Babb, associate director for many years, to director and Peter Auster to science director in February.

To augment projects, NURC purchased a new ROV with multiple video cameras last year, adding to its internationally recognized fleet of three ROVs. A new van is a self-contained ROV support center complete with computers and work station so it can travel quickly in emergencies and on research missions. The MSTC also will be receiving a new research vessel next summer that will serve as the mother ship for the new ROV. The center has asked for help in naming the new ROV, calling on school children to pitch in their ideas.

NURC funds 7 to 20 projects per year, including some multi-year projects. Its competitive review of proposals remains, but a new competition at the national level has been instituted by the National Undersea Research Program in Washington, D.C. In the first year of national review, UConn's NURC came away with the second highest amount of funding for new projects nationally: $250,000, in addition to its $1.3 million base budget that supports multi-year projects and the Center's administration.

Babb said NURC's 1997 projects reflect the changes in the program to more closely align itself with NOAA's research mission.

"We have very good technical staff and several underwater robots, so we are receptive to the research and management needs of other institutions and agencies as well as other unique research opportunities," he said.

Renu Sehgal-Aldrich