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New report details scope of LANL cleanup: 20 years, $4B

Posted:Thursday, September 15, 2016 11:25 pm | Updated: 10:16 am, Fri Sep 16, 2016.

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

A new draft report detailing the federal government’s plans to clean up decades-old hazardous waste from nuclear weapons production during the World War II-era Manhattan Project and the Cold War says Los Alamos National Laboratory and neighboring areas won’t be free from the legacy waste for more than 20 years, and the project’s costs could reach nearly $4 billion.

The August report by the lab’s Environmental Management Office, released publicly this week, provides the clearest picture the public has seen of the scope of work left to rid the lab and surrounding canyons of radioactive waste and environmental contamination. It lists 955 sites that could contain contamination and says 5,000 cubic meters of legacy waste remain at the lab — half the total that workers began cleaning up 25 years ago.

The Legacy Waste Cleanup Lifecycle Cost Estimate follows a new agreement in June between the lab, the state Environment Department and the U.S. Department of Energy for cleanup guidelines. A previous cleanup order expired in December with several missed deadlines.

The revised consent order has been criticized by some groups who say its deadlines are too flexible and that it loosens the state’s reins over the project. Some say language in the consent order encourages the government to pursue work only when it is most cost-effective, which could lead to further delays and “cap-and-cover” procedures rather than waste removal.

State and federal officials had been vague about plans to tackle the waste cleanup under the new order. But the new report includes an analysis of 17 specific cleanup campaigns expected to be completed around 2040 at a cost of up to $3.8 billion.

Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation helped obtain the report at the request of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, which includes Santa Fe. At a Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall urged U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to release documents and to work with New Mexico on estimating the total lab cleanup costs to ensure adequate funding.

“This report represents the first and most comprehensive release of specific plans to complete the cleanup of legacy waste at LANL,” Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, vice chairman of the regional coalition, said in a statement. It “is a big step forward for the people in these communities who want to see a concrete commitment to making progress.”

Gonzales, who is in Washington, D.C., this week, praised the efforts of Udall, as well as U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and Rep. Ben Ray Luján, for releasing the document to the coalition.

“As of today, we know more and can rest more assured than at any time in the history of this effort,” he added.

Coalition Executive Director Andrea Romero said the document provides a foundation for local advocacy. “After years of requests for this document,” Romero said, “we now have the tool that can get us to additional cleanup dollars to get the job done.”

In an email Thursday, Udall was more cautious, saying legacy waste cleanup at Los Alamos still has a long way to go and could cost more than estimates suggest.

Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, expressed doubt that the cleanup work would follow the timeline outlined in the draft report. Costs could escalate, he said, and the new consent order could be renegotiated in the future, as the previous one was.

The cleanup work will have to compete with funding for new lab programs, as well as a backlog of maintenance work at aging structures infested with asbestos and rodents. The effort comes as the federal government is planning to rebid the lab’s operations contract in 2018 and usher in new management following a series of missteps and safety concerns.

Among the first areas to be remediated, the report says, are contaminated sites adjacent to the town of Los Alamos. The project is expected to be complete in 2019 or 2020 and cost up to $6.4 million. Next up is a $50 million campaign to decommission and demolish contaminated structures at the lab by 2022.

The lab is currently excavating plutonium-laced soil from canyons near Los Alamos. The dirt is being bagged, tested and transported to Utah for storage, The Associated Press reported earlier this week. At the beginning of the month, the lab requested a round of 45 demolition projects by the year’s end, including buildings and smaller structures.

But the process of removing thousands of barrels of radioactive waste from the lab’s Area G to a permanent storage at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad will likely not be complete for another 20 years and will cost more than $740 million, according to the report. The document notes that more investigation, testing and emergency preparedness training must be finished before the waste removal can begin again.

The report says delays in cleaning up Area G are largely due to new discoveries of contamination, two major forest fires in Los Alamos, insufficient funding and the 2014 shutdown of WIPP, the nation’s only underground nuclear waste storage site, following a radiation leak caused by a barrel of transuranic waste from the lab that burst in an underground cell.

The document also outlines how the lab will address a 65-acre site within Area G that contains underground waste pits and a vapor plume of volatile organic compounds, a project that isn’t expected to be finished until 2040. But language in the report suggests the possibility that officials could decide, instead, to bury the waste on site, a concern some critics had raised when the cleanup order was approved.

If the Department of Energy “determines that removal of portions of the retrievable TRU [transuranic] waste is unsafe for workers or is cost prohibitive relative to risk reduction benefits,” the report says, “DOE may propose incorporating this waste into corrective action” at Area G and Area L “through regulatory options available.”

A groundwater plume of hexavalent chromium — a carcinogenic metal that targets the kidney, skin and eyes — may not be cleaned up until 2040 — and even then, a continuous treatment process of pumping and filtering the water will be required, the report says. The chemical leaked from cooling towers in the 1960s.

As the lab works to clean up old waste over the next few decades, it also will be producing new plutonium pits — the grapefruit-size fission triggers inside nuclear bombs that are a key part of the government’s plan to modernize the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. Lab Director Charles McMillan has said the program to restart pit production, which will generate new nuclear waste, is 95 percent complete.

This leaves unanswered questions about where that waste will go and how much it will add to the contamination at Los Alamos.

“The land will always be contaminated,” Mello said. “… I think it is very important for people to understand that more nuclear waste is being generated all the time.”

Heinrich acknowledged that pit production would generate some new waste for storage at WIPP, but said in a statement that “modern safety and environmental regulations will prevent the unsafe and outdated disposal waste methods.”

Udall also addressed the issue of new waste at the lab: “We must learn from the past and ensure that any future waste streams from LANL operations are handled and disposed of properly from the start,” he said.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.


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