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LANL seeks permission to store more nuclear waste on-site

Posted: Saturday, March 11, 2017 11:15 pm | Updated: 3:37 pm, Sun Mar 12, 2017.

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

LOS ALAMOS — Los Alamos National Laboratory wants to store thousands of gallons of newly generated radioactive waste for an indefinite number of years, possibly decades, on laboratory property that is primarily used for plutonium research and nuclear weapons development.

LANL waste map

The lab in January asked the state for permission to modify its 2010 hazardous waste permit in order to use two waste rooms and an outdoor storage pad near the lab’s plutonium facility to hold 1,700 waste drums, or 95,000 gallons, of radiologically contaminated materials — enough to fill six backyard swimming pools.

The new waste would join millions of gallons of radioactive waste and other hazardous contaminants stored in shallow pits and above ground throughout the lab’s 43-square-mile property, some of it dating back to the Manhattan Project. The request underscores the nuclear weapons industry’s continuing struggle to find places to dispose of its growing stockpiles of radioactive waste, an endeavor that was set back in part by the nearly three-year closure of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Southern New Mexico. An improperly packaged waste drum from the lab burst in an underground chamber in February 2014, causing a radiation leak.

Even with the reopening of WIPP in January, the facility is unlikely to return to full speed for several years, and new rules for accepting radioactive waste will only further delay shipments from Los Alamos.

The request also raises new concerns about the amount of radioactive waste being stored on the lab’s property, which has been threatened by catastrophic wildfires at least twice in the past 20 years, and about the lab’s long-troubled history of waste management, which has been a frequent subject of federal oversight reports.

Officials said the newly generated waste has been accumulating at the lab since WIPP stopped accepting shipments.

Keith Lacy, a group leader for hazardous materials management, said at a public meeting in Los Alamos on Wednesday that the waste currently being generated by the lab has no place to go, creating “the need for increased storage capacity to support continued mission operations.”

Most of the new individual drums would only be permitted to remain at the site for a year, but exceptions in the plan could allow some drums to stay longer if, for example, they cannot be disposed of elsewhere.

The lab also will have to reassess the waste in at least 300 of the new drums because they are at risk of being too flammable to ship to WIPP, which cannot accept such materials under new guidelines created after the 2014 accident. The assessments would take place in the new storage area, Lacy said, adding that it would be safer to conduct all of this work in the same place.

But nuclear watchdogs question why the lab needs so much new waste storage capacity and whether it is wise to store hazardous waste so close to the highly sensitive work done at the plutonium facility, PF-4, located at Technical Area 55.

“I am not filled with confidence,” said Greg Mello, director of the independent watchdog Los Alamos Study Group. He said storing waste at TA-55 puts too many eggs in one basket and that the lab should focus on cleaning up the waste it already has before continuing work that generates new waste.

“One has the sense from this that we are looking at one ad-hoc solution built on top of another,” Mello said. “The people who are potentially hurt by this are not going to be people miles away, they are going to be workers.”

PF-4 is the heart of the laboratory’s work in plutonium-related programs and is seen as central to maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship program. Since 1998, the site has been used in part to build plutonium pits, which are essentially grapefruit-sized atomic bombs — each with about the yield of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan — that are used to trigger thermonuclear weapons.

Work was stalled for a number of years at the facility because of safety concerns with the building, including an inadequate fire safety system and its potential inability to withstand an earthquake; it is located over a seismic fault line. While some of those issues are still in the process of being resolved, work restarted in late 2015 as part of nuclear weapons modernization efforts outlined by the Obama administration, which sought to build as many as 80 pits per year by 2030.

Permit documents state that because the facility is up and running again, “an anticipated increase in the generation of MTRU [mixed transuranic] and TRU waste is expected.”

Transuranic waste includes materials like tools, rags and soil that have been contaminated by radioactive particles. Mixed hazardous waste contains heavier radioactive elements, like plutonium, and another hazardous waste component, such as a toxic chemical, which makes treatment more complex.

In addition to pit production, Los Alamos began converting plutonium to fuel for NASA space missions in thr fall, according to a recent statement by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The storage space requested by the lab would double the amount of storage allowed at the site but only increase the total storage throughout the laboratory complex by 2 percent, according to Tammy Diaz, with the lab’s compliance programs.

Still, some nuclear watchdogs wonder what the lab would be doing to produce so much waste.

“It seems ambitious,” said Scott Kovac, with Nuclear Watch New Mexico. Because operations were stalled for several years at the plutonium facility, he asked, “Where is all that waste going to come from?”

The new storage space would only be for newly generated waste, with the oldest drum dating back to 2011.

In total, however, legacy waste generated during the Manhattan Project and Cold War has already created at least 5 million gallons of waste at the lab, officials say. Some estimates place this figure much higher. Data analyzed by the Los Alamos Study Group found that roughly 82 million gallons, or 11 million cubic feet, of radioactive and hazardous waste are buried in shallow and deep pits, largely concentrated at Area G, the lab’s largest waste storage site.

And for Mello, this is the crux of the problem.

“The desire to make more waste is actually competing with [the] desire to get on top of their safety and [existing] waste issues,” he said.

The continued storage of above-ground waste also raises questions about the safety of the drums in the event of a fire. The lab has fire mitigation plans that are updated every five years and include work to deter fire, such as extensive tree thinning and brush removal within a specific perimeter of the lab.

But these measures haven’t prevented unintentional wildfires from burning through areas used to store radioactive waste on a number of occasions.

The 2000 Cerro Grande Fire burned 112 lab structures, consuming 7,500 acres of laboratory property, with fire engulfing TA-55 and encroaching on Area G, according to lab documents.

In 2011, the Los Conchas Fire burned more than 150,000 acres in Los Alamos and came alarmingly close to transuranic waste drums stored at Area G.

The fire prompted Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration to call for the lab to prioritize above-ground legacy waste cleanup, with a deadline to ship the waste off the Hill to WIPP by June 2014.

But this deadline faced an unanticipated setback with the shutdown of WIPP.

The transuranic waste drums that remain at Area G are now contained in a steel structure covered by a dome with fire-retardant fabric, which includes a sprinkler system and fire-retardant blankets on hand in the event of a fire.

Michael Lonergan, a spokesman for Gov. Martinez, referred questions to the state Environment Department.

Allison Majure, a spokeswoman for the Environment Department, said, “The New Mexico Environment Department works closely with all of our federal facilities, like LANL and others, to keep New Mexicans safe through enforcing the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act protocols, which require the mitigation of fire risk.”

She said the department is still reviewing the lab’s request and will give it, and public feedback, “proper consideration and act on the information accordingly.” Members of the public have until April 5 to submit comments to the Environment Department on the proposed permit.

Los Alamos’ management of nuclear waste has been an issue for decades. The cleanup of legacy waste alone is estimated to cost nearly $4 billion and take at least another 20 years.

This waste cleanup was originally governed by a 2005 consent order between the lab’s management contract, Los Alamos National Security LLC, the U.S. Department of Energy and the New Mexico Environment Department. The order outlined an aggressive goal to remove all legacy waste from the laboratory within a decade.

Following the WIPP accident, a new consent order was negotiated between the parties and finalized in June 2016. This document requires the lab to develop annual cleanup milestones, but does not set a final date for removing all legacy waste — an element of the agreement that elicited criticism from nuclear watchdogs and other members of the public.

Though WIPP has reopened and began to store new waste in January, shipments from outside facilities won’t begin until April, and they will proceed at a slower rate than before the 2014 closure.

Los Alamos is the last in the queue and won’t begin sending shipments until September, according to permit documents.

Only 24 shipments will be allowed to go from Los Alamos to WIPP in the next year, compared to 230 shipments sent in fiscal year 2012, according to a lab news release.

Jeff Carmichael, with the lab’s Environmental Protection and Compliance group, said, “If we were shipping to WIPP [over the past three years], this would not be a problem today.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or

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