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For immediate release 6/2/14 (web version)

“New Mexico TRU”

Study Group Calls for Pause in New Plutonium Waste at Los Alamos

Pause is Useful to Fix Long-Standing Safety Problems

Non-Cleanup Plutonium Programs Lack Urgency, Group Asserts

Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200 office, 505-577-8563 cell

Albuquerque, NM – Today the Los Alamos Study Group called upon the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), its parent agency the Department of Energy (DOE), and contractor Los Alamos National Security (LANS) to halt all unnecessary program activity generating new plutonium waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). 

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), to which this waste has been shipped since March 1999, has been closed since February 5 of this year, first from an underground truck fire and then, far more consequentially, from underground contamination resulting from one or more bursting drums on February 14.  (The above DOE links provide more information – as does this page, and this document log, maintained by the New Mexico Environment Department, NMED). 

Recovery from this incident will likely close WIPP for at least two years, those who have attended DOE briefings are reporting.  Our sources believe a two-year timeline is optimistic.  DOE’s schedules usually are. 

The Associated Press also reports that WIPP closure is likely to last at least two years and possibly up to four (“Feds say it could take 2 years to seal nuke dump,” AP, May 31).  The AP story is based on timelines in this May 30 DOE plan, which responds to this May 20 Order from the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). 

The Study Group believes a pause in generating new transuranic waste (TRU waste, not from cleanup) would clearly aid core NNSA and DOE programs as well as further cleanup and safety goals. 

Study Group Director Greg Mello: “The main LANL plutonium facility (PF-4) and its programs would benefit from a pause that would allow important, long-delayed seismic [more background here], ventilation, and related safety upgrades to proceed unhindered [see for example the description of Project 15-D-302, TA-55 Reinvestment Project Phase III here, pp. 271-276]. 

“A pause would also allow LANS to efficiently reconfigure space within PF-4, and transfer some analytical chemistry capabilities from the decrepit Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) building.  CMR is structurally unsound and unsafe for workers.  It would have long ago been condemned if it were a commercial structure. 

“We have continually urged greater focus on safety and cleanup, and less on production at LANL, as when we wrote to the Safety Board last fall.  Recent events sadly suggest we were right.  We make this request now because it has become clear that LANL cannot safely manage accelerated cleanup, plus its programs that generate new waste, and simultaneously fix its facilities.  LANS, its subcontractors, NNSA, and DOE cannot juggle so many challenges at once.” 

LANL halted most work in its plutonium facility last June because of an increasing number of criticality safety violations.  The facility’s programs remain partially halted a year later as training and analysis continue.  Recently the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) warned that any re-start of the remaining activities would be premature.  Significant work remains to be done to ensure that an accidental nuclear reaction will not occur.  

“Shipments of new waste have competed for facilities, staff time, and truck space with shipments of legacy waste.  Even with the recommended pause, waste volume at LANL will increase during WIPP closure – at least two years – as existing waste is retrieved, stabilized, and repackaged.  We shouldn’t be adding to LANL’s processing and safe storage difficulties with unnecessary new TRU waste. 

“There are few or no plutonium programs at LANL that cannot be paused while WIPP recovery proceeds.  Some programs have no clear purpose at all, while others – including preparations to produce plutonium warhead cores (“pits”) (no pits are being produced), and production of plutonium dioxide for reactor fuel – are being rethought within government. 

“At the macro level, NNSA itself is now widely considered a failed experiment in government.  Its future is uncertain, as is the governance structure of the weapons laboratories including LANL [ for more detail see Congressional Advisory Panel on the Governance of the Nuclear Security Enterprise, Interim Report, Apr 2014; Remarks by Greg Mello, May 13, 2014]

“At the micro level, the full picture of what caused the WIPP shutdown and why such mistakes were made hasn’t emerged, and won’t for some time.  A formal investigation is underway.  Lawyers are involved and communication across corporate boundaries is going to be more difficult than usual.  Meanwhile the limited number of safety personnel on site have extra duties dealing with the dangerous waste containers mistakenly created by LANS and its subcontractor.  It’s possible that a serious contamination incident at LANL was only narrowly avoided.  All this uncertainty and friction, from top to bottom, suggests a pause is warranted.

“LANS is building a new TRU waste facility.  There is a case to be made that further production of new TRU waste should wait until that facility is completed now that WIPP is closed, so that the safety hazards and cleanup at Area G can more thoroughly and promptly addressed.

“A two-plus year hiatus at WIPP, with the final outcome still unknown, is not just an inconvenience.  NNSA’s plutonium programs now have no assured long-term place to send their waste.  It’s a crisis, the nature and extent of which no one can see.  Its magnitude may be obscured for those accustomed to the long-standing bureaucratic division between one agency that makes radioactive waste and another that disposes of it.  Each agency has developed its own complex ecosystem of contractors.  It would be a mistake to underestimate this situation. 

“We believe this event comes at a watershed in U.S. history, when limits to resources and the impact of those limits have begun to hit our economy and ways of doing business.  Our analyses over the past decade suggest resource limits will cause increasing economic hardship during the present decade, possibly during the WIPP shutdown period.  The effects of anthropogenic climate change are also arriving.  These and other converging crises do not favor highly complex, unique, and untried technological endeavors costing billions of dollars, of which DOE and NNSA are now attempting several.  What we are saying is that the problems at LANL and WIPP are not occurring in isolation.  Simpler solutions with less elaborate supply chains and simpler lines of responsibility, and above all with downscaled ambitions for programs of inconspicuous merit, are now in order.  A pause will help NNSA and DOE make this necessary transition.”

Selected Background

We have not attempted to compile even a ballpark quantity for this press release from DOE’s disparate sources, but we believe LANL has easily one thousand cubic meters of TRU waste on-site – in its nuclear facilities, above-ground at its main waste storage and disposal site (Technical Area 54, Area G), and below-ground, marked for retrieval, also at Area G.  Not all this TRU waste is in the “3706 TRU Waste Campaign” or subject to the “Framework Agreement.”

This does not include LANL’s considerable vault holdings of plutonium that are not waste but have been declared unnecessary by LANL (see for example p. 11 of “CMRR Background Briefing to Senate Foreign Relations Staff,” Craig Leasure, Jun 19, 2012) for its programs and/or declared surplus to U.S. national security needs by DOE.  In 2009 LANL held, in addition to plutonium in waste, 4.0 metric tons of Pu-239, of which 1.2 metric tons has been declared surplus ("The United States Plutonium Balance, 1944-2009,” DOE, June 2012, p. 14). 

LANL’s TRU waste comes in a variety of forms, some of which require careful characterization, treatment, and repackaging.  Errors and supervisory failures in the process of treating and repackaging legacy TRU waste led to the WIPP shutdown and the internal contamination of 22 WIPP workers.  Care and additional focus are evidently needed. 

Many people do not know that hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of nuclear and chemical waste not slated for retrieval or cleanup, including large quantities of TRU waste, remain in shallow burial at LANL in Material Disposal Areas (MDAs), including MDAs C, G, and other sites. 

MDAs G and L have extensive chemical contamination plumes in the unsaturated subsurface. 

The TRU inventory in disposed waste at Area G exceeds 2.5 million curies (see p.7 in Shepard et. al., “Accelerating the Disposition of Transuranic Waste from LANL,” LA-UR-09-00255, March 2009, where the authors tell us 33 shafts containing 2,500 curies comprise “less than 0.1%” of TRU isotopes disposed at Area G). 

LANL continues to permanently bury some of its so-called “low-level” radioactive waste (LLW) at Area G, including some highly-radioactive waste, such as graphite accelerator beam stops.  Perhaps 21 million cubic feet of various kinds of toxic waste have been buried at LANL.  Our own summaries are dated but instructive and broadly comparable; the disposal rate amounts to roughly 174 drums’ worth per day over the history of LANL.  

In 2000, LLW disposal area expansion was expected to provide an additional 57 million cubic feet of capacity at LANL.  No external permitting, either state or federal, is required. 

There are about 2,000 contaminated locations at LANL.  Few of these will be “cleaned up” under the “cleanup” program or “Order on Consent,” slated for “completion” in 2015. 

We mention these facts to dispel any misimpression that there is a “cleanup” program which will clean up all or even most of the contamination at LANL. 

Returning to the subject of TRU waste, LANL generates large quantities of new, non-legacy TRU waste from NNSA and DOE programs unrelated to environmental cleanup.  These programs are primarily located in PF-4 and CMR. 

Most but by no means all of these TRU waste-generating programs are funded within NNSA’s Weapons Activities budget, under “Plutonium Sustainment.”  In the U.S. and at LANL, plutonium – specifically the dominant Pu-239 isotope – is mostly used for nuclear weapons.  Small but dangerous quantities of highly-radioactive heat source plutonium (Pu-238) is used to make batteries for nuclear weapons, spacecraft, and oceanic and remote terrestrial surveillance equipment.  PF-4 also houses a significant program to produce plutonium dioxide for mixed-oxide (MOX) reactor fuel.  The U.S. MOX program is in substantial disarray and may not continue.  There is no current or urgent need for plutonium dioxide production at LANL or anywhere else. 

LANL shipped 275 kg of Pu-239 in waste to WIPP over the 1994 to 2009 period (p. 17 in "The United States Plutonium Balance, 1944-2009,” DOE, June 2012).  LANL discarded 217 kg of Pu-239 to waste over the same period (p. 12), four-fifths of the quantity shipped to WIPP.  During that 15-year period, the amount of Pu-239 in waste stored at LANL declined by only 58 kg (p. 16), from 610 kg to 552 kg (p. 8), or about 10% – not much to show for a 15-year effort. 

In volumetric terms, over the ten-year period from the opening of WIPP to the end of calendar year 2008, 2,300 cubic meters of TRU waste was shipped to WIPP from LANL, but the inventory of TRU waste declined by only 1,000 cubic meters.  That’s because LANL produced 1,300 cubic meters of new TRU waste (Shepard et. al., “Accelerating the Disposition of Transuranic Waste from LANL,” LA-UR-09-00255, March 2009).
The production of TRU waste at LANL is expected to increase as pit production and MOX ramp up.  A new facility to process, store, and ship TRU waste yet to be generated, the TRU Waste Facility (DOE line item construction project 12‐D‐30), is now under construction.  It is expected to cost $107 million and be ready for occupancy in 2018.  The TRUWF will have a storage capacity of 1,240 drum equivalents and is expected to ship TRU waste (to somewhere) until 2068 – long after projected WIPP closure (NNSA Congressional Budget Request, pp. 283-294). 

In 2010, this facility was to be located within a “Consolidated Waste Complex” (CWC) involving onsite LLW disposal (previous planned LLW expansion areas had been elsewhere).



(NNSA, FY2011 Biennial Plan and Budget Assessment on the Modernization and Refurbishment of the Nuclear Security Complex, Annex D, May 2010, p. 34)

In 2011 LANL was using the following rendering for this new facility (George Henckel, “Legacy TRU Waste Program at Los Alamos National Laboratory, LANL, December 2011). 

PF-4, without adequate seismic upgrades, could collapse entirely in the event of any earthquake as large as those which have previously occurred at the site over the past few thousand years.  This dire outcome is expected to follow the failure of a single column, or column-to-floor joint.  The latest seismic studies, expected to be definitive, are nearing completion and will very likely be followed by engineering design of seismic upgrades for this nationally-important building, replacement of which would cost more than $10 billion and take at least a decade. 

As noted above, the CMR Building is structurally unsound (see p. 21, U.S. Nuclear Weapon “Pit” Production Options for Congress,  Congressional Research Service, Feb 21, 2014) and was slated for permanent closure in 2010.  Most of the building is unoccupied; the northern wings are contaminated and were slated for closure even before discovery of the fault that lies beneath them.  All remaining CMR programs are slated to be moved either to PF-4 or to the new Radiological Laboratory, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB) by 2019, or else – in the case of the Bolas Grande project – ended by that date.  We do not believe the Pu-242 that would be liberated from the Bolas Grande project is necessary or worth the cost and therefore we advocate closure of CMR as soon as otherwise possible, i.e. during the pause we advocate today.  The risk of death from building collapse in CMR (from CRS, above) is ten times greater than the most dangerous jobs in America (see p. 49). 

There is no need to produce plutonium components for nuclear weapons for many years if ever (“Plutonium at 150 years: Going Strong and Aging Gracefully,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Science and Technology Review, Dec 2012, “Plutonium in Warhead Cores (“Pits”) Stable to 150 Years,” LASG press release, Dec 6, 2012; Study Group comments on LANS letter in response to the above, Dec 12, 2012).  No such production has been approved.  The Administration’s current plan (NNSA/DOE FY 2015 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, April 2014), which aggressively posits replacement of all but one type of nuclear explosive package (NEP) with new-design variants, requires production of the first 10 plutonium warhead cores (“pits”) for the stockpile only in 2024 (p. 2-6), a decade from now, ramping up to 30 pits per year over the following two years and to higher levels after that.  While some prior work is necessary to prepare for this campaign – which we believe unnecessary in any event – the most important work that could be done to prepare for it is, in our opinion, to complete the appropriate seismic and safety upgrades at PF-4.   

This request is also being sent to congressional appropriations committees, who are in the process of marking up the president’s budget request for NNSA programs in fiscal year (FY) 2015, as well as the New Mexico congressional delegation and other interested parties. 


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