Conceptual site models as a tool in evaluating ecological health: The case of the Department of Energy's Amchitka Island nuclear test site

Joanna Burger, Henry Mayer, Michael Greenberg, Charles Powers, Conrad Volz, Michael Gochfeld

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Managers of contaminated sites are faced with options ranging from monitoring natural attenuation to complete removal of contaminants to meet residential health standards. Conceptual site models (CSMs) are one tool used by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and other environmental managers to understand, track, help with decisions, and communicate with the public about the risk from contamination. CSMs are simplified graphical representations of the sources, releases, transport and exposure pathways, and receptors, along with possible barriers to interdict pathways and reduce exposure. In this article, three CSMs are created using Amchitka Island, where the remaining contamination is from underground nuclear test shot cavities containing large quantities of numerous radionuclides in various physical and chemical forms: (1) a typical underground nuclear test shot CSM (modeled after other sites), (2) an expanded CSM with more complex receptors, and (3) a regional CSM that takes into account contaminant pathways from sources other than Amchitka. The objective was to expand the CSM used by DOE to be more responsive to different types of receptors. Amchitka Island differs from other DOE test shot sites because it is surrounded by a marine environment that is highly productive and has a high biodiversity, and the source of contamination is underground, not on the surface. The surrounding waters of the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean are heavily exploited by commercial fisheries and provide the United States and other countries with a significant proportion of its seafood. It is proposed that the CSMs on Amchitka Island should focus more on the pathways of exposure and critical receptors, rather than sources and blocks. Further, CSMs should be incorporated within a larger regional model because of the potentially rapid transport within ocean ecosystems. The large number of migratory or highly mobile species that pass by Amchitka provide the potential for a direct pathway to the local human population, known as Aleut, and commercial fisheries, which are remote from the island itself. The exposure matrix for receptors requires expansion for the Amchitka Island ecosystem because of the valuable marine and seafood resources in the region. CSMs with an expanded exposure/receptor matrix can be used effectively to clarify the conceptualization of the problem for scientists, regulators, and the general public. Copyright

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1217-1238
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Toxicology and Environmental Health - Part A: Current Issues
Issue number13
StatePublished - Jul 1 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Toxicology
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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