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"Forget the Rest" blog

How to clean up Los Alamos
Preliminary Comments, 9/8/04, Greg Mello

Introduction

The environmental situation with respect to pollution from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is complex.   The regulatory situation is far more complex – so complex, I doubt if anyone fully understands all the possibilities, contingencies, and nuances.   The nation’s primary hazardous waste law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), together with the state’s “baby RCRA,” the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act (HWA), comprise the active core of the regulatory authority at the site.   These two laws were simply not designed to cope with this situation and cannot effectively do so.   This is all the more true in the absence of genuine, active democratic participation, which the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), the Department of Energy (DOE), its quasi-independent nuclear weapons fiefdom, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and finally the University of California (UC), which manages the site for the DOE and NNSA, all have potent reasons to discourage.  

Still more complex, primarily because it is kept so cryptic, is the enormous tension that lies beneath the surface gloss of politics and public relations – the tension between the world of nuclear weapons and the world of human beings and the values which have built their culture, civilization, and the body of laws by which both are maintained.  

The world of nuclear weapons is a world of absolutes.   It is a world of enormous temperatures and pressures, physical conditions which have already been used to create enormous death and destruction.   Such violence seduces the leaders of the nation-state to think that nuclear weapons can be for them – but not for others – the old Roman ultima ratio, the final arbiter of conflict, the final and unfailing source of absolute national power and sovereignty.   The practical details of such a weapon thus require absolute secrecy, which in turn requires absolute obedience, which is absolutely incompatible with freedom and democracy.  

Morally, these weapons turn the world upside down.   The nuclear weapons enterprise, basically, is a quest to achieve the most extreme opposite of the Golden Rule that science can devise – maximal yet convenient death to any and all others, with as much safety and security for myself as possible.   As such, it corrodes the moral basis of civilization directly, leading to nihilism and despair.   As the intense conflict they cause between normative systems ramifies through our government, the administration of laws selectively collapses, as we see now in the case of environmental regulation at LANL.  

Nuclear deterrence is, after all, little more than a doctrine of state-sponsored terror, useful for rulers to control their own populations and any competing political interests in their own countries at least as much as it is useful in coercive diplomacy elsewhere, all the while providing no actual defense or security for the country asserting such a doctrine.  

When the institutions which comprise such a regime – a regime which is utterly ruthless and death-dealing at its very core, as a matter of commitment and fundamental ideology – confront a small, provincial bureaucracy in a historically weak state that has an unpaid, volunteer legislature, it is the latter which will give way.   Which it has.   We can be grateful the situation is not worse, and for this we must thank the civil servants at NMED and DOE who toil, often thanklessly, guided at crucial junctures only by the light of their own consciences.  

The remedy to the environmental contamination posed by nuclear weapons, and the challenge they pose to our state’s ability to regulate its own affairs, including the protection of its environment, will not be found in bureaucratic reform, which is fundamentally incapable of addressing the issues involved.   It will be found in a sober recommitment to the values that make us human at all, a recommitment which necessarily involves a firm rejection of the will to violence embodied by the weapons which waste us, our land, and the efforts of our civil servants.

The central idea in the multiple lawsuits filed against New Mexico by DOE, NNSA, and UC was that nuclear weapons are too important to be hemmed in by little environmental laws.   Neither, then, can we allow our response to the crisis posed by these weapons to be captured in little, timid ideas.   We must disenthrall ourselves, as Mr. Lincoln said some time ago, if we would save our state, its people, and our environment – indeed, if we allow our eye to take in a wider picture, if we would save humanity itself.   As Mr. Lincoln said then, we cannot avoid history.   Today, as when Mr. Lincoln spoke, we have to choose where we stand, and what we stand for, and we have to speak that truth, because it will be the truth about who we are.

1. Some important basic facts about the environmental situation at Los Alamos

The first step is to achieve some basic clarity about the situation.   While I am not fully cognizant of all the currently-available details, these elementary big-picture facts can and should be stressed.

There is no safe level of contaminants, but there are choices about societal investments.

  • The Rio Grande will never be contaminated by Los Alamos above any drinking water standard by groundwater discharge from LANL watersheds, for fundamental, elementary reasons.   The risk resulting from contaminants added to the Rio Grande from chronic groundwater discharge at LANL will always be orders of magnitude below the risk from contaminants already in the Rio Grande and in other New Mexico water supplies (e.g. Albuquerque ground water).  
  • The Rio Grande could be contaminated above drinking water standards by some scenarios involving sudden releases caused by, for example, accident, sabotage, or terrorist act.   Another possible scenario is the contamination of land and river as a result of mining of shallowly-buried wastes at LANL, e.g. mining done in pursuit of the fissile materials buried at LANL.  
  • Wells on the east side of the Rio Grande will never become contaminated above drinking water standards by Los Alamos-caused ground-water pollution.
  • The regional aquifer at Los Alamos, where it has become contaminated or where it may be contaminated in the future, can never be cleaned up by any pumping or injection method.   That aquifer is too a really extensive and too thick (these two together mean that it has too great a volume), and it is too deep.   It will always be much cheaper (by orders of magnitude), to apply cleanup technologies at the wellhead, if ever needed, than several hundred feet deep in the ground.
  • There is no danger of massive contamination of the regional aquifer, because there is no mobile body of contamination adequate to cause it.   There is some contamination of that aquifer in some places which so far has not risen above any water quality standard in any public water supply well.   It may or may not ever do so.
  • The simplest, cheapest, and most reliable monitoring wells for contamination of the regional aquifer as it may affect human health now or in the future, are the drinking water wells in that aquifer, which can be monitored closely for trends in contaminants for a tiny fraction of the cost of an adequate system of deep monitoring wells.  
  • There is no other public purpose for investigation and monitoring of the aquifers at Los Alamos than to protect public health.   Since an adequate monitoring system for aquifer contamination is already in place (a consequence of the facts above), the only purpose for any hydrologic investigation at LANL is to inform the active removal of contamination from either the aquifers or the ground above them.   Passive contaminant attenuation in the aquifers, i.e. doing nothing, to the extent that approach is chosen, is adequately served by monitoring the existing drinking water wells.
  • There is already an extensive body of knowledge about the geology and hydrology of Los Alamos, including about the regional aquifer.   As concerns contamination in the regional aquifer, that body of knowledge is more than adequate for the purposes of decision-making regarding any and all actions that might be taken to protect human health.
  • While the overall hydrogeology is already known in general terms, it will not be possible, no matter how much money is spent, to produce a finely-detailed, fully-capable model of LANL hydrology that is capable of predicting the transport and fate of contaminants from a given recharge area to a given discharge area to a useful degree of accuracy.   Not only is there no need for such a simulacrum, but there are insurmountable technical problems that prevent its completion.   One such problem is the fact that the hydrogeology of Los Alamos is very heterogeneous, and the flow in fractured basalt in particular is probably not even always Darcian, i.e. some pathways probably exhibit the kind of flow that occurs in pipes.   Other highly permeable zones also exist and are elusive.   The location of the highly-permeable features cannot be fully discovered by drilling, since their dimensions are measured in inches or in other cases in feet, and the LANL site is 1.2 billion square feet in size.   Statistical methods are merely descriptive.   It’s far simpler, wiser, and cheaper to remove what contaminants one can, since it is already known which are the most important ones to remove, and the overall risk is dominated by potential future events that take place at the surface anyway, i.e. is not dominated by hydrologic processes.   A second trans-scientific problem is posed by the hydrologic properties of fractured vadose zones, for which there is no accomplished theory, let alone predictive capability.   The prompt movement of meteoric water to depth in fractures apparently depends sensitively on the surface characteristics of these cracks, among many other factors, which presumably vary from spot to spot and also with other conditions (physical, biological, chemical) in some complicated way.   The fractured vadose zone problem has defied clear understanding so far at Yucca Mountain, despite massive federal investment.   The upshot of these issues and others is that at LANL, with this “brute-force” approach, one must destroy the mesas in order to “save” them – “saving” being defined merely as knowing about them (or knowing how they used to be prior to drilling all those holes, in some fictitious, idealized sense), not as remediating them.   In addition to these two trans-scientific issues, objectively unknowable factors such as climate change also weigh in.   Much could be said about the “institutional autism” that characterizes the current bureaucratic approach to the objective world and its other logical, not to mention institutional and political, weaknesses, but these two scientific issues must suffice to provide a glimpse of deeper and more extensive problems.  
  • It is conceivable that some of the perched intermediate aquifers at Los Alamos could be remediated if this was found to be desirable.   This is because the concentration of contaminants in those aquifers is much greater (heuristically, let’s say 10 times greater) than in the deeper aquifer, while the volume is much less (heuristically, let’s say 10 times less); the depth is also less.   This means that if active protection of the regional aquifer is desired (as opposed to passively monitoring), it is much more cost-effective (heuristically, perhaps 100 times more cost-effective, given the two factors mentioned) to focus efforts on the intermediate aquifers, as opposed to the regional aquifer.
  • But the shallow alluvial aquifers and the vadose zones above them are in turn contaminated, in some places, to a much greater degree than the associated intermediate aquifers.   They are also much more accessible, with drilling costs a factor of, heuristically, 10, 100, or perhaps even 1,000 times less than that for the intermediate aquifer, depending on the type of well emplaced.   This means that for the purpose of removing contaminants, as well as for the subservient purpose of investigating contaminants and their associated geohydrology, it is much more cost-effective to focus on these shallow aquifers, vadose zones, and associated materials (some of which are accessible to a variety of removal and treatment technologies) than it is to focus on deeper aquifers.   Contaminant removal (and hence investigation, the sole purpose of which should be active remediation, given the above facts) will be, heuristically, perhaps 100 times more cost-effective than in the intermediate aquifers, and hence perhaps 10,000 times more cost effective than in the regional aquifer.  
  • Generally speaking, by far the greatest mass of contaminants at Los Alamos lies in the Material Disposal Areas (MDAs), which are all fully accessible at the surface, for better and for worse, with technology as simple as a shovel powered by human beings.
  • All the contaminants in those MDAs, as well as all the contaminants at the site in general, will eventually be somewhere else.   What is not known is the shape of the loss curves for each contaminant from each dump site.   These can never be known to any important degree of precision.
  • In the long run, the risk and total hazard associated with Los Alamos contamination will be dominated by the contaminants now in the MDAs, and in a very few other known, major contamination sites.  
  • Some of those contaminants represent proliferation concerns in the quantities present.   Many nuclear weapons could be made from wastes now “permanently” buried at LANL in shallow pits, shafts, and collapsed explosive chambers.   In some cases, these wastes are quite concentrated in fissile isotopes such as plutonium-239.  
  • It is not possible to construct an objective, scientific risk assessment for these MDAs and major sites, because some of the most important risk factors cannot be estimated.   These involve human will, intention, institutions, and memory, all of which change subject to biological, social, political, epidemiological, climatic, and other events which cannot be predicted with any confidence at all on a scale of decades, let alone centuries or millennia.   Human beings are inherently creative and unpredictable; that is what makes them human.   Also, while there is disposal information available for the MDAs and other few major sites, the accuracy and completeness of this information is not known.   LANL does not know and cannot know what is in those pits and shafts without physical and chemical inspection.  
  • Investigations that aim to discover movement of wastes from MDA cells into the immediate surrounding vadose zone may be interesting, but they have little or no bearing on estimating long-term risk or hazard from those cells.
  • Finally, and in many ways most importantly, the total amount of waste disposed into the environment at Los Alamos is increasing daily at a significant rate.   There is at present no plan to halt disposal, but rather there is every intention to continue disposal at Los Alamos indefinitely, at rates which may approximate past disposal rates, and in unlined pits and transient containers (e.g. carbon-steel drums) no different from those used in the past.   Disposal of waste increases the long-term hazard proportionately, all other factors being more or less equal.  

2. Clarify terms – clean up the language  

At the outset, it is important to clean up our language, since public relations practices at LANL and NMED have intentionally blurred it in order to avoid responsibility and hide what is going on, perhaps even from themselves.   That is how rule by administration works.  

Cleanup is not a bureaucratic program by that name.   Here, let’s refer to cleanup as real, positive actions taken to remove contaminants from the environment, in contrast to investigation (physical and chemical measurements to gain data to define the extent and nature of contaminants in the environment), monitoring (chemical sampling of contaminants already known to be in the environment), and analysis (manipulation and assessment of data to assist in decisionmaking).  

Cleanup is not the same as leaving a body of contaminants in the ground or groundwater; neither does it include adding freshly-produced contaminants to the ground, i.e. pollution.   Over the course of the past decade, as in the decades before that, LANL has done more polluting than cleaning up.  

Cleanup may or may not be warranted in any given case, depending upon political decisions including, among other factors, considerations of projected medical risk to individuals and aggregate hazard to human and non-human populations as well as religious, economic, and aesthetic criteria.  

Risk, hazard and other political considerations apply differently at different times, but must be considered together now and for the foreseeable future, whether or not they are commensurable or even compatible.   They must be considered in a cross-cultural and multi-generational context.   Reconciling values and interests is an inherently political problem, requiring an evolving political solution.   Thus considerations of relative political power, representation (including of other generations as well as the current one, sometimes hidden in decisions such as those concerning whether or not to use a discount rate for future investments, risks, and costs), enfranchisement, accountability, etc. are central to the pollution problem and decisions surrounding it.   Science, among other paths of knowledge, can inform us.   People acting together, i.e. politics, will decide.  

Broadly speaking, there are really only two alternatives to cleanup: passive attenuation (thoughtfully waiting, while monitoring, for the combined processes to dilution, adsorption, natural chemical and biological destruction, and radioactive decay to lower contaminant concentrations or total quantities, or both); and prompt or eventual abandonment in place, usually after attempting to retard the movement of contaminants within the environment by means of barriers such as landfill caps, passive groundwater barriers, and other geotechnical engineering projects.   There are obviously degrees of care and sub-alternatives in all these categories.

Waste is not stored in landfill cells, as there are no means to inspect it and no means or intent to take it anywhere else. Discarded waste materials not being stored have been disposed and are already in the environment.   Such waste can and will migrate, but cannot “migrate into” the environment because it is already there.   

What ultimately happens to contaminants that are “cleaned up?”   They may be treated and destroyed or at least rendered less inherently dangerous; and/or they may be disposed in the environment again, presumably in a place and in a manner that has a lower hazard now or in the future and/or meets other political objectives.   Contaminants removed from the environment are present in a matrix of earth materials (soil, rock) or water, which may sometimes be partially removed from the contaminants to facilitate treatment, transport, and subsequent disposal of the latter.   Cleanup may thus involve removing contaminants in earth or water in one place and disposing of them in another, with or without treatment or subsequent packaging, etc., even in another location at the same site, if the new location is much less hazardous or meets other important political objectives.  

3. Cleanup involves political and cultural, as well as environmental, decisions

Cleanup involves risks to individuals, both to workers and to populations, as do all other human activities.   Construction of homes, all industrial and laboratory work, military service, childbearing, even white-collar employment with accompanying stress, as well as recreational activities – not to mention dietary and life-style choices – all involve risk.   Individuals and collectivities assume these often-considerable risks voluntarily for the sake of other goals and values deemed more important, or perhaps they do so as a result of coercion, compulsion, or vice.   The first situation we call “freedom.”   The involuntary assumption of mortal risk as a result of state decisions, outside a system of full enfranchisement and assented legitimacy, is little more than state-sponsored homicide.

If risk reduction were the sole or even the primary goal of life, there would no human life at all, and in particular there would be no economic life.  

Thus cleanup decisions, like all other decisions, are never made solely on the basis of net risk reduction or a balancing of risks, but always involve other political values and goals.  

Risk, whether from contamination, from cleanup activities, from hostile attack or from the measures we take collectively in the name of “defense” or “national security,” needs to be viewed in proportion to other risks, and especially in relation to the sum of all risks.   The risk of death for each individual is unity – a complete certainty.   As far as death is concerned (the usual central concern of “risk assessment”), all decisions in any sphere, including decisions about cleanup, national security, etc. can only change the time, place and manner of our death, not its probability.  

Translating, cleanup decisions, then, into a context in which we focus on life, rather than one concerned with death and motivated by the fear of death, we can say that cleanup decisions are embraced not just in order to allow people live longer, but also in order to change the content or experience of life, as well as its meaning.   Cleanup involves the living landscape, a tapestry woven of both fully human and fully non-human elements, involving our history as well as our hopes.   Cleanup, or failure to clean up, changes us as well as the land.   Drifting forward through the decades, as we have been doing, is also a kind of decision, and will change us as well.

Cleanup decisions, like other important personal and public decisions, change our relationships to past and future generations.   Such decisions are in this sense fully historic and cultural as well as environmental.  

I’d like to say more, and say it more rigorously and fully, but can’t, not today.   So skipping past more rigorous and better-reasoned preliminaries than appear here, I want to say that struggles over cleanup at LANL involve, among other things, a hidden cultural struggle over the meaning of nuclear weapons and nuclear careers (past, present, and future), and over the pollution that results from both.   Especially: does that pollution truly exist, requiring action and investment on our part, or does it not exist – that is, is it trivial and forgettable?   This is not an objective problem, but involves a political process based on value choices in which there are very clear material winners and losers.   That is why so much money is being spent by DOE and NNSA to fight cleanup.   What is at stake is quite momentous, for them as well as for us.  

The political function of the extensive “scientific investigation” process outlined in the NMED Order, should it stand, is to provide a way to postpone and to hide that political process behind a veneer of pseudo-scientific obfuscation and hence respectability, given our largely scientifically-illiterate society, while completely disenfranchising citizens.   That is the political function of risk assessment generally, why risk assessment studies, as well as the ideology pseudo-quantitative mystification that lies behind them, is so lavishly funded by corporate and national security interests around the world.  

In 1990 I wrote a small essay, exploring in a simplistic way the encounter between pro- and anti-nuclear cultures in New Mexico.   That essay is appended at the end of the current remarks.   It concludes:

To remediate sites contaminated from nuclear weapons design and production requires not just a physical stabilization or containment, but a transformation of purpose as well.   The damage done is mythic as well as chemical and physical, and requires a heroic response.   The earth of Los Alamos, and the history of Los Alamos on the earth, cannot be reclaimed if it is not also redeemed.   This will require a conversion, not just away from weapons work, but toward a new calling altogether.   In that day, and not before, joy will truly return to this place, and people will no longer be frightened of the wind.

4. End the financial dependence of NMED on DOE

There are basically only two good ways to fund the regulators and more than make up for DOE’s conflict-of-interest-generating payola.   One is for the legislature to appropriate the money.   Probably this would occur as part of a general awakening as to the value of government in general – a reverse of the hostility to government we now see, which hurts New Mexico even more than it does most other states.  

The second is for NMED to charge a fee for regulatory activities directly to the regulated parties.   This fee must apply to all who are regulated in order to be equitable and to avoid constitutional challenge under equal-protection principles.   The simplest and fairest way to administer it is probably by the hour, the normal way of doing business in the world.   Facilities will have just one more incentive to obey the law.  

As the situation stands today, enforcement is extremely expensive for NMED, prohibitively so in most cases, especially where facilities with large resources challenge NMED’s authority.   This breaks down the regulatory structure, quite apart from DOE and its virtually-unlimited resources.   NMED needs a proportional, structural incentive to comply with its regulations.  

This arrangement would also lead to both greater economic efficiency and equity, as non-compliers would pay the marginal cost of noncompliance, and that cost would not be shifted to the tax-paying public as an externality in the form of taxes.  

5. Publish everything already “known;” do modest, appropriate analysis of existing data

Publish everything that is known – everything – from all previous studies at Los Alamos in a management- and citizen- friendly format on the web, including all unclassified data, and make everything available in active GIS files.   No one, and certainly not NMED, has access to the pertinent data now, even though in theory it is all available at LANL.   This is a major project, and will involve the creation of meaning and memory through organizing what is “known.”   In fact, it is not known because it is not known by anybody, and cannot be used by anybody, not even LANL.   The redaction of mountains of data into specific cultural meaning is a political process.   That is why the files must be active, manipulable files.   It is entirely inappropriate for the data to lie with the polluter and be doled out in patronizing manner to genuine, legitimate authorities.  

  • For that matter, all unclassified information at LANL, of essentially all kinds, should be available to all.   Hiding public information in a democracy is like sticking one’s head in the sand.   It fosters not just blindness with respect to specific decisions, but also what might be called a culture of “institutional autism,” crippling the institution and destroying it for most intents and purposes.   In the final analysis such a policy contributes nothing to security.   Activities which, if revealed, might have catastrophic consequences to the host society should not be done at all.  
  • For contamination already in underground waters, provide a summary by mass of each contaminant by aquifer for each surface watershed, with associated data quality and numerical bounding studies.   Use existing data only.
  • For all contaminated sites, using existing data only, prepare a geocoded database with the estimated mass of each contaminant at each known location, dividing larger contaminated areas into subareas as necessary.   Include other pertinent ranking information, such as erosion potential (this assessment is mostly done already) and the maximum concentration of each contaminant present in this database.   Tying this database to an active map is a straightforward and inexpensive process; most of this work is already done.
  • For floodplain areas, using existing data, prepare, for each contaminant and for each watercourse, a volume/mass curve showing the relationship between the volume of earth materials in that floodplain and the contaminant mass which is contained in that mass.   Detailed mapping, led by LANL scientist Danny Katzman, has only been done for some floodplains.   It should be completed for the Mortandad Canyon watershed, and further investigations in other canyons conducted if merited by the total amount of contamination present in that canyon.   But first use the data already available.
  • Assume that the immediate hazard from each and every contaminated site at LANL is acceptable.  
  • Using existing data, rank-order all contaminated sites at Los Alamos in terms of their short-term hazard – over the next, say, 30 years.   Assume access controls remain intact that long, so that the hazard from LANL sites is evaluated at the fenceline.   Do not attempt to compute absolute risk.   Just tentatively order the sites.   Spend about one week on this process, no more.  
  • Using existing data, rank-order all contaminated sites at Los Alamos in terms of their long-term hazard, based on assumptions of pervasive access by the public to the surface of the site as well as to the shallow subsurface (up to 100 feet deep).   Assume residential and agricultural land uses, and assume that humans may mine or otherwise disturb disposal sites.   Assume there is no memory of disposal, no LANL, no State of New Mexico, and no United States.  Do not attempt to compute absolute risk.   Just tentatively order the sites.   Spend about one week on this process, no more.   Long-term hazard will be very closely associated with contaminant longevity, hazard per unit concentration, and mass present at each site.   It will be insensitive to site location and to all other factors.   Use no discount rate; a child killed in 2400 counts the same as a child killed in 2100.
  • For the top ten sites in each list, compare absolute hazards, using the assumptions given or something similar.
  • From the above analyses, all of which are easily done, it will be seen that the integrated long-term hazard at the worst LANL sites is much greater than the short-term hazard from the worst LANL sites (those sites being, as they are, under strict access control).   It will be seen that the long-term hazard is closely associated with contaminant mass, toxicity, and longevity.   Using these factors, then, together with the certainty with which they are known (or not), rank all LANL sites by long-term hazard.  

6. Meanwhile, halt land disposal at LANL

  • Halt land disposal of new nuclear waste at LANL.   Any hope of cleanup is largely absent without this step.   This should be done because:
    • LANL’s dissected mesas have no sites suitable for nuclear waste disposal;
    • DOE has access to far better disposal sites, both those it owns (e.g. the Nevada Test Site, with far better environmental conditions) and those it has under contract (e.g. in Utah, at a site without potable groundwater);
    • shipping waste will require careful packaging and certification, which is not now done, and which will cause “upstream” pressure on waste generators, in effect internalizing externalities in waste generation decisions;
    • off-site disposal will, according to knowledgeable insiders, be significantly cheaper than disposal at LANL; and most of all
    • the programs which generate nuclear waste at LANL have, for the most part, negative social value in themselves and should be gradually shut down, greatly decreasing the volume of waste in question.   This single step alone will “clean up” – i.e. prevent – approximately half the pollution at LANL by 2100, relative to options involving continued disposal.  

It will be argued that NMED has no formal brief to even call for a halt to radioactive waste disposal, let alone radioactive waste generation.   This is true, except at areas G, H, and L, over which NMED holds permitting authority, including closure and post-closure provisions among others.   Yet Secretary Curry has a broader mandate, even a legal mandate, than the sum of all the specific laws and regulations he must enforce, let alone RCRA and the HWA by themselves.   Given the current and planned role of the nuclear industry in the state, Secretary Curry cannot do his job and remain silent on the subject of shallow land disposal of large quantities of nuclear waste in an unregulated landfill, located on a dissected mesa above springs and streams.   His job responsibilities exceed those of the Hazardous Waste Bureau, which indeed must stick to its RCRA and HWA knitting.  

Mr. Curry serves at the pleasure of Mr. Richardson.   He cannot provide leadership if Mr. Richardson does not allow it.   More broadly still, halting permanent damage to the state from shallow nuclear waste disposal is the responsibility of both the Governor and Legislature, whose jobs it is to articulate a consensus of values which protect the state’s environment and provide for the proper development of the state’s society and economy.   To do this, regulation is not enough.   It never has been enough.   The entire evolution of our environmental regulatory apparatus has been, from the beginning, a very partial response.   Without leadership from elected representatives, leadership expressed in new law and decisive executive action, regulatory structures turn into fossils, eventually unable to accomplish even rudimentary versions of the tasks originally set for them.   This failure is usually not apparent until it is revealed by some sudden crisis or disaster.   In the present case, Governor Richardson has allowed NMED to waste its time and talent defending lawsuits that the Governor himself should have condemned loudly and clearly and worked hard to vacate.   He could have succeeded, perhaps easily succeeded.   In fact, he should have forestalled those lawsuits, and it may be the absence of any response from the Governor to the first lawsuit, filed only by UC, that emboldened DOE, NNSA, and the Justice Department to file more lawsuits.   But Richardson never even tried.   We know this because all the primary means he had for defeating this challenge to New Mexico involve media exposure, and it never happened.  

With gubernatorial support, Mr. Curry, together with Secretary Prukop of Energy and Minerals, could and should now convene, with nonprofit help, a conference that begins with the premise that further nuclear waste disposal in New Mexico is anathema, and that nuclear power as well as nuclear weapons deserve the highest possible level of scrutiny.   Since Senator Domenici has articulated a vision of a “nuclear corridor” in New Mexico, and since various corporate nuclear interests now view New Mexico as a possible playground, it is long past time for Mr. Curry to use the authority of his office, in addition to his specific regulatory powers, to hold these large capitalist forces to bay.   Let them go to China and create huge profits and executive salaries, if she will let them.  

It will be argued, again, that this is politically impractical.   I think we need to examine whether our survival as a species, whether our humanity, whether avoiding massive loss of species, whether avoiding the untimely deaths of millions of people – whether all of these and many more things are in fact politically impractical.   Something is wrong with our notion of practicality when it excludes our very survival.  

Why aren’t more environmentalists saying this?   I am afraid the environmental movement has been domesticated.   A taste of power, status, and popularity on the one side, and of penury and want on the other, have tamed too many.   Is it not time to search the wellsprings of the movement that created the environmental norms we now enjoy – such as they are – and ask, with our whole lives, “Is this enough?”

Without this kind of searching questioning, public risk-taking, and personal commitment, there will be no halting of nuclear disposal at LANL – and certainly no real cleanup.  

7. Decontaminate and demolish the old buildings

There is no excuse for keeping contaminated buildings in place for years, even decades, like haunted ghosts.   They are dangerous, and they should be removed.

8. Remove the largest contaminant masses

Beginning with the highest-ranked sites, excavate and remove contaminants, separating them from the surrounding matrix and directing them to WIPP, to the Nevada Test Site, to chemical treatment and/or disposal elsewhere, to treatment at LANL (e.g. vitrification), to appropriate packaging, and so on.   Some portion of these wastes should be re-interred at LANL.   This can be done by hand and by robot, and in important cases it must be done indoors.   Transuranic ( TRU) wastes should not remain buried at LANL.  

This will be expensive, but it need not be very dangerous.   As mentioned before, lots of things are dangerous (e.g. mining, construction, nuclear weapons).   Recall that the U.S. has spent $7.0 trillion on nuclear weapons, or $100 million each, representing an enormous opportunity cost in lives, alternate national security possibilities, and potential for this country.   We know how to sacrifice.   There is no reason why those who are creating this mess should not be the ones who actually dig it up – if they want a job in New Mexico, that is.  

9. Address the canyons

It will be necessary to conduct a hazard assessment for canyon contaminants.   Perhaps this has been done.   It must be assumed that everything in the active floodplain will wash into the Rio Grande, so contaminants can be studied in the aggregate.   Are the canyon sediments a potential problem downstream?   Perhaps.   I don’t know, and so must assume so.   It may be necessary or prudent to remove all contaminated sediments in the highest contamination classes from the canyon bottoms, especially those soils containing PCBs and mercury, which bioaccumulate.  

10. Prevent further groundwater contamination and remediate groundwater, beginning with the shallowest

Based on total contaminant mass in water and earth, rank locales of groundwater contamination (if there is no discount rate for future morbidity and mortality, no threshold for toxicity, and no site boundary and hence no further adsorption pathway, hazard is pretty much proportional to mass).   For Mortandad and some other canyons, it will probably necessary to take aggressive steps to actively remediate the waters of the shallow aquifers, including all measures necessary to redirect run-on and other discharges, even if “clean.”   If necessary, remove all alluvial groundwater.   Treat this water and discharge it, say, below the surface of the relatively dry mesa-tops.  

For the intermediate aquifers, there are basically two options: Pump and treat, or do not pump and treat.   For intermediate aquifers not upgradient from drinking water wells, set aside this question while aggressively remediating the shallow aquifers which supply water and contaminants to them.   For intermediate aquifers which could threaten drinking water wells, estimate the cost of remediation in conjunction with the shallow aquifers.

11. Keep going until the money runs out

12. In conclusion: ritual cleanup

This sketch is inadequate in the extreme.   It is necessary, however, to offer in one place, however inadequate, a précis of some of the conversations and correspondence I have had for some years with various NMED, DOE, and UC staff members, because I am quite critical of the plan now being offered.   It won’t accomplish much of any value, and it’s not designed to accomplish much.  

What we will get from this Order is a kind of ritual "cleanup" conducted by excellent environmental professionals that removes the onus of contamination without actually requiring removal of much, if any, contamination.  DOE and LANL cannot absolve themselves.  NMED can and therefore must do it.  For that, we need a formal process, a ritual, something with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  And it can probably be sold as an environmental "success" by the Governor's office, when it actually represents a near-total failure on his part, much more so than by NMED, which cannot address LANL successfully without his leadership.

It is the imputed authority of the authors that does the purifying trick in the ritual cleanup.  Magic reports of a prescribed format will be waved over the mesas at precisely specified intervals, holes will be drilled and samples taken.  There will be an illusion of control.  Spreadsheets of estimated risk will blossom from a hundred computers, and imagined cleanup options will be implemented on softly-lit, high-resolution monitors, all without dirtying a shovel.  There will be no worker risk, apart from ennui.  Paychecks will be signed, whole flocks of them flying into hands all over the mesas and down to Santa Fe, and children will grow up and go to college.  Many press conferences will be held by many successive NMED leaders, and employees will be hired, fired, and grow old taking samples, calculating risks, and submitting precisely specified reports between now and 2015.

Real estate will be transferred and ribbons cut on new buildings, built on contaminated land under “long-term” brownfields protections that will be forgotten in a few decades after some tumultuous social and political crisis, if not long before that.

Within our time, the LANL weapons programs program will be absolved from its environmental sins, even as the actual long-term environmental hazard increases steadily and unceasingly, like a stain spreading across the mesas, first filling this one, then that.  Every day, the trucks will lumber down to TA-54, carrying more drums; every year, new pits will be dug and filled.

With this Order mediating between the hope for cleanup and its receding likelihood, it is meaning and memory that are to be remediated, not the ground.  To drift, in this matter, is to forget.   Milan Kundera famously said, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”   We are supposed to forget, and then we will feel so much better.  

What is in danger of being forgotten is not where the waste is buried, at least not at first.   What is in danger of being forgotten is something else.   Bertrand Russell said, “Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”

Postscript: “How to Understand Anti-Nuclear Hysteria”
Winter, 1990, Greg Mello

In February and early March the Department of Energy held a series of four public hearings concerning the scope of the environmental impact statement for its proposed new plutonium research and development facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory.   Hundreds of people attended these hearings, which in each case extended late into the night.   The content of the presentations was, on every evening, overwhelmingly negative toward the DOE's proposal.

These hearings, it should be noted, were not the first hearings in Santa Fe concerned with nuclear issues.   In the past year, we have had hearings about WIPP, hearings about the incineration of radioactive waste at LANL, and hearings about the investigation and possible cleanup of disposal sites at LANL.   At all of these hearings, a dominant theme of public comment was the possible health effects of the proposed nuclear activities.   (This was, of course, not the only dominant theme, especially in the recent hearings, when many well-articulated economic, political, and moral issues were raised.)

It is very clear that some of the people who are most alarmed about these health effects know very little of the details of nuclear safety or health physics.   The concerns and fears they express often seem disproportionate to the actual facts of the case at hand.   Some scientists have even remarked that they see an inverse relationship between nuclear knowledge and nuclear fear.   Leaving aside the many points made at these hearings which made some sense to everyone, including some very valid and scientifically-sound points about health risks, how are we to understand the more "far-out" health concerns?   Are these concerns just naive?   Are these people just "anti-nuclear weenies," as Vernon Kerr put it?

I doubt it.   First of all, there is the striking fact that our nuclear weapons research and production facilities--overseen by supposedly well-qualified technical experts--are, in almost every case, severely contaminated.   Hundreds of tons of uranium dust wafting into the Ohio sky, millions (yes, millions) of pounds of mercury released into streams in Tennessee, vast areas of the Snake River aquifer contaminated in Idaho, unknown numbers of pounds of plutonium oxide dust released into suburban Denver, the intentional secret release of thousands of curies of iodine-131 in Washington, an experiment which heavily contaminated parts of three states--all this and much, much more has been done by experts employed by the DOE.   The historical record unfortunately shows that nuclear safety scientists employed by the DOE have simply been untrustworthy.

It is not just that these events occurred--that would be bad enough.   What is worse is that all this took place amid a constant refrain of denials that anything dangerous was happening--in most cases, even, denials that anything dangerous could happen.   I used to think that, in past decades, people just didn't know better.   But the record shows that many of these nuclear experts certainly did know better, and that individuals of integrity who complained were usually silenced.   The DOE and its predecessor agencies have for decades practiced an intentional policy of secrecy and coverup, a policy in which betrayal of the public trust was rewarded and from which contamination was the inevitable result.

This coverup is not something that happened elsewhere.   Many of the most contaminated DOE facilities--including the Y-12 Plant in Tennessee, the Rocky Flats plant near Denver, the Savannah River Facility in South Carolina, Pantex in Amarillo, and others--were overseen by our own DOE office in Albuquerque.   And neither are coverups a problem only for the DOE, something that couldn't happen at, say, Los Alamos.   According to the March 9, 1990 Albuquerque Journal, a federal researcher this month told a panel in Washington that he was pressured to alter the conclusions of his epidemiological research which found significantly elevated cancer rates among workers at Rocky Flats.   He was told to do this by a deputy director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.  

Stories like this have been in the newspapers practically every week for many months.   I, for one, am forced to draw a somewhat paradoxical conclusion:   the anti-nuclear crowd--who certainly do not know the details of health risks as well as the technicians--may be more in touch with the "big picture" than are many of the "experts."   The concerned citizens, it appears to me, are often more correct overall than they are in the details.

How can this be?   It may be that the matters at hand have more to do with political science than with nuclear science, and more to do with history than with half-lives.   And beyond this, it may be that nuclear decisions inevitably and rightly are symbolic as well as factual, and that--God forbid--imagination may have a rightful place in the discourse.   For who can doubt the importance of the imagination, where nuclear weapons are concerned?   Many a weapons scientist will assert that these weapons are made so that they will never be used, meaning that the imagined effects of explosions--explosions in the minds of the adversaries--are what ultimately count.   "Imagination," Einstein once said, "is more important than facts."   The psychological and political effects the weapons engender are, in fact, their hoped-for use.   Throughout strategic discourse, imagination and symbol interweave with so-called "objective" reality, each influencing and creating the other.   We and the Soviets, each "thinking the unthinkable," create and sustain our nuclear world.

In this broader context, the intuition and experience of the general public is, in fact, very well qualified.   It is precisely on the larger questions that many of the nuclear technicians and scientists rightly fall silent, knowing on the one hand that their narrow expertise gives them no particular claim to historical or political wisdom, and on the other hand knowing that they have a conflict of interest.   For not only are they rewarded for supporting "the program," but they know (and clearly imply in conversation) that they will be disciplined if they speak out.

But I think there is a great deal more involved in citizens' health concerns surrounding defense nuclear activities than just the objective health risks, coupled with a reaction to past bad faith and contamination.   To look at this further, imagine two somewhat idealized or caricatured groups:   the dyed-in-the-wool nuclear technicians, on the one hand, and the anti-nuclear zealots on the other.   One group, we postulate, has faith that their technology and the programs of their employer will keep any public health or environmental threats well below acceptable limits.   The other group does not want any chemical or radioactive contamination (or risk of contamination) whatever, no matter how trivial.

Each group, we may notice, is the shadow, in the Jungian sense, of the other.   Each expresses what the other does not and so each completes the other.   But neither side, it seems to me, understands the other.  

The technicians' truth is logical, and it is proportionate.   It is logical to say, for example, that 0.1 or 1 or 10 millirems per year resulting from some nuclear activity is far less than a background dose of 125 or (with radon) 325 millirems per year.   Aside from the doses themselves, the risks involved in these small doses are dwarfed by the inescapable risks to which we are subjected daily in our lives, plus whatever additional lifestyle risks we choose for ourselves as well.

This is a simple and pure way of reasoning.   It is unassailable.   It is the logic of addition and subtraction.   A child can understand it.   It is a form of thinking made dominant and indeed nearly universal in our time probably not so much by physical science and its practical achievements as by business, by the necessity of living in a world permeated by economic markets mediated by money.   (But surely money has nothing to do with all this, right?)

On the other side, the hysterical zealots' side, a different logic prevails--so different in fact, from the technical point of view, that "logic" seems too kind a word.   But logic it is, though of a different order.   For these people, reason must stand aside for what they perceive as Reason.   They sense, in the very core of their being, truths which the emotionally and spiritually-impoverished discourse of our time allows only a most imperfect expression.   It is as if their--and our--psyches, our souls, are instruments of a most sensitive kind, which can perceive events that cannot otherwise be measured:   the motives of actions, the tilting and sliding (as it were) of the great historical themes, the subtle changes in Zeitgeist of which we are in our daylight moments only dimly conscious.   While the scientist has schooled himself to discern what is objectively verifiable (and therefore "true") from what is not (and therefore humbug), his training per se has not prepared him to understand what is important.

The differences between these two groups are so great that the political encounter between them is a collision, not just of interests, but of two widely differing (and, to each other, largely incomprehensible) realities.   It is a contest between two incommensurable truths, a struggle not just between different values, but between very different ways of choosing what is valuable.   The assumptions of each group differ so widely from each other that their common ground can be difficult to see.   There cannot be, in such a case, any "objective" solution to who is more "right."   Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky describe this situation:

Choice depends upon alternatives, values, and beliefs...Values and uncertainties are an integral part of every acceptable-risk problem...There are no value-free processes for choosing between risky alternatives.   The search for an “objective method” is doomed to failure and may blind the searchers to the value-laden assumptions they are making...[The issue is] who should rule and what should matter.

The question of "what should matter" is, in this case, not just a choice pertinent to any particular nuclear waste issue but is, I believe, also an increment of a historic choice of major significance, a kind of watershed for our culture.   The choice of "what should matter" is a choice not just of a particular outcome but of the ground rules for all future contests, a choice of context as well as content.   It is a choice of what sort of evidence is admissible to the public debate about nuclear waste, and many other debates as well.

For what the antinuclear zealots sense is, perhaps, not just the pollution of DOE sites and their surrounding areas, the permanent poisoning of the land, the decades of secrecy behind which these activities have taken place, all of which are facts.   I believe their response is also and above all to the toxic intention that has built these institutions, an intention which can fairly be called poisonous, and which grows more plainly so every year.   I am referring to our intention to devise weapons that will enable us, if necessary, to kill--and not just soldiers, but to kill broadly and widely:   women, children, animals, plants, the land, the future.   This intention--so horrific, so repellant it cannot be fully grasped--is what lends to its byproducts and special materials an overweening toxicity that transcends the ordinary sense of the term.   It throws a shadow over the land that is darker, much darker, than the plume of any incinerator or exhaust stack, and which rightly inspires terrific fear.   To kill, to destroy, to lay waste, to prevail--all, of course, only "if necessary:"   we throw this intention forward into the future like a spear and it falls back bloody upon us and our children now, both as physical wastes (the smallest part, it will someday be plain) and as our own doom.   Intending to kill others in the body, we kill ourselves in spirit, and our decline presently unfolds all around us.

It is, the zealots may be saying, as if our attempt to filter out and isolate ourselves from the toxic by-products of our intention is ultimately futile.   Aren't they saying that though we may survive, we cannot truly live, with this intention carried on the breeze?   Aren't they saying that, if they do not speak their hearts, the spring wind will no longer be fresh to them and they will not be partners in its promise of renewal?   Aren't they saying that no matter how oh-so-squeaky-clean we want to keep our lovely towns, in this our beautiful place, we can no longer do so?   When shown a modern piece of plutonium technology, don't they see it as part of an effort that was itself obsolete many years ago? What to some appears to be the cutting edge of weapons science, to them just seems cut off:   cut off in time from history, solving the crises of 1943 all over and over again, and cut off from the urgent cries of a world--our only world--in pain.   They will not be hoodwinked, as they see it, by measurements and predictions that, however truthful they may turn out to be, are ultimately irrelevant.   Their concern is not about amounts; it is an attempt to cast out of their lives, and to keep far away from, what in another time would be called, simply, evil.

The social and political discourse of our time provides for these concerned citizens and for all of us no true public hearing, no true telling of this fear and grief.   So it spills out in what channels it can, and I for one cannot call it inappropriate.   For here we are dealing not just with pollution--something in the wrong place, as anthropologist Mary Douglas said--but with defilement, with substances that in many people's view should not exist at all.   No surveillance instrument will ever be able to gauge this defilement or allay this fear.

Somehow these concerned citizens sense that nuclear weapons--weapons which lie by their very nature outside the moral and even the legal canons of our civilization--are genocidal.   Developed in response to the genocide of fifty years ago, they bear an ontogenetic relationship to it.   They are our moral legacy from Nazism, a kind of necrophilic inheritance.   From out of the dark shadow they throw across this land and our future, one can hear Hitler's last laugh, but without a foreign accent.    The concerned citizens want no part--not any--part of this.

Ultimately, it is not a question of safety at all.   The lives of the anti-nuclear activists are not safe and they well know it.   Safety is not what they ask for.   They are asking for life, for its pains, risks, pleasures, and for a future.   They want a life that is rooted in the earth, in its seasons, in their senses, a life where woman and man--and not machines--are the measure and the end of their shared labor.

In any case, the anti-nuclear zealots do not understand how background radiation doses can be compared to those from nuclear technology.   It is, to them, like comparing apples and oranges.   You may say "But either can make you sick or kill you just the same!"   Not so; deaths are hardly equivalent in their meaning, just as lives are not.   To say they are reduces life to a statistic, to not-life; even to compare these two doses is, in this view, an affront.   As if the risk which obtains from breathing radon in one's home, something one does in the course of family life, living in eros, in the generative and productive life, could be compared to an accidental death from contamination incurred by nuclear weapons work.   It is a mark of how far we have slipped, the degree to which an obsession with quantity has taken over our minds.

All of this bears centrally on the problem of remediating the contaminated legacy of LANL's past.   To remediate sites contaminated from nuclear weapons design and production requires not just a physical stabilization or containment, but a transformation of purpose as well.   The damage done is mythic as well as chemical and physical, and requires a heroic response.   The earth of Los Alamos, and the history of Los Alamos on the earth, cannot be reclaimed if it is not also redeemed.   This will require a conversion, not just away from weapons work, but toward a new calling altogether.   In that day, and not before, joy will truly return to this place, and people will no longer be frightened of the wind.


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