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Los Alamos National Lab is on track to become a permanent nuclear waste dump

November 2, 2011, 12:00 am

 In the summer of 2010, an excavator lifted a 1940s-era radiation protection suit from a pit in Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Technical Area 21. With it came two pickup trucks of the same vintage—one of which may have been involved in the famous Trinity nuclear test near White Sands—and a 30-foot-tall chemical mixing tank.

The successful excavation of Material Disposal Area B, the lab’s oldest waste site, disproved a commonly held belief: that comprehensive cleanup of radioactive waste at the lab was cost-prohibitive, if not impossible. The project cleared a 200,000 square foot area and removed 750,000 cubic feet of toxic waste that had lain dormant since World War II. It cost $110 million—a modest sum for a facility with an approximately $2 billion budget. 

Unfortunately, Area B is one of 24 waste sites at LANL, which in 1944 started burying everything from uranium chips to contaminated dump trucks in unlined pits. More than half of the lab’s estimated 17 million cubic feet of remaining waste lies in Area G—the only disposal site where LANL continues to dump, and one it seeks to expand. Though Area G’s fate has been bandied about for decades, it has now reached a critical turning point. 

The lab released a Corrective Measures Evaluation in September, sizing up its options for cleaning up the site. In the evaluation, LANL stated a preference for covering, rather than excavating, Area G. Over the next few months, the lab and the New Mexico Environment Department are set to decide a course of action. At the same time, LANL just received the official go-ahead for a proposed plutonium processing facility known as the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility. It’s a project that will add to the lab’s toxic waste production—add more to it, in fact, than the nation’s current radioactive waste disposal sites can hold.

Area G is a 63-acre piece of land just west of White Rock, adjacent to Pajarito Road. It sits on narrow Mesita del Buey, a 500-foot-wide mesa adjoining picturesque Pajarito Canyon, with its ochre-colored volcanic rock bluffs, ponderosa pines and stands of juniper bushes. Long, rectangular, fabric-covered white tents crouch next to trailers, portable buildings, waste disposal drums and open pits. The site emits an ominous humming sound.

The Area G waste dump at
Los Alamos National Laboratory
occupies 63 acres on Mesita del Buey,
just west of White Rock.

LANL started dumping nuclear waste at Area G in 1957. Since then, more than 300 pits, shafts and trenches have been dug at the site, some as deep as 60 feet. In many places, liquid and solid waste were dumped onto the bare earth: Activists familiar with the site, including Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety Executive Director Joni Arends, say none of the dumps are lined. Inside the tents, metal drums and other containers hold plutonium-contaminated waste, known as transuranic waste. Those containers—some too radioactive to be handled, except remotely by machines—are periodically loaded onto trucks and taken to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, a deep salt cavern in Carlsbad, where they are sealed permanently in underground chambers. At the same time, new drums of waste from LANL come to take their place, in a futuristic game of musical chairs.

Calls to remove the waste from Los Alamos and to stop producing more are frequent, intensifying when lab projects come up for decision-making or when other initiatives put a higher premium on northern New Mexico’s environmental purity. A good example is the outcry that ensued when the Buckman Direct Diversion Project, which supplements Santa Fe’s drinking water by diverting it from the Rio Grande downstream from LANL, came online this spring. Representatives from local anti-nuclear nonprofits raised concerns at public forums, while citizen activists wore gas masks, read poems depicting dystopian futures, and blamed LANL operations for everything from cancer to type 2 diabetes.

Long, rectangular, fabric-covered white tents crouch next to trailers, portable buildings, waste disposal drums and open pits. The site emits an ominous humming sound.

But amid the din of protests, both ill- and well-informed, is scientific evidence about the environmental threat posed by LANL’s waste. The legal document governing LANL’s environmental cleanup describes the following types of contamination in ground and surface water near the site:

• Radionuclides, or radioactive atoms: atoms of unstable elements such as plutonium, uranium and tritium, which undergo radioactive decay over a period of up to thousands of years, emitting radioactive ions. Their instability allows them to split (called fission) under certain conditions, producing the intense heat of a nuclear explosion. When they enter the human body, they can kill or damage cells and cause them to become cancerous. 

• Explosives such as TNT used in firing tests.

• Dioxins: waste products generated from various chemical processes that accumulate in and damage organs, sometimes fatally. Agent Orange owes its toxicity to dioxins.

• Perchlorate: a flammable industrial pollutant tied to thyroid function. Los Alamos County saw a spike in cases of thyroid and brain cancer in the 1990s and 2000s.

• Volatile organic compounds: byproducts of various manufacturing processes. VOCs have low boiling points, so they often exist as vapor, making them adept at moving through soil and into groundwater.

Contaminants originating at LANL have been found in the Rio Grande. The environmental and human health hazard they present is severe enough to warrant an early warning system that diverts the river away from Santa Fe’s drinking water anytime storm water flushes out Los Alamos’ canyons. 

A separate danger is contamination of the groundwater under LANL, which supplies drinking water not just to Los Alamos, but also to Santa Fe and Española. The lab’s own hydrogeologic studies document LANL contaminants in the regional aquifer and predict an inevitable increase “over a period of decades to centuries, as more of the contaminant inventory reaches the water table.”

From the House Committee on Appropriations’ report on the 2010 budget bill covering Department of Energy projects:
“Departments of Energy and Defense have not produced a strategy specifying the purpose of the nuclear stockpile in the post Cold War world. In the absence of a strategy, it is impossible to make rational decisions on the size and composition of the stockpile and the complex that supports it.”

In 2005, LANL and the state entered into a new era, if not a bright new one, in the lab’s environmental stewardship. For the previous three years, NMED had fought a legal battle with the Department of Energy and the University of California, which operated the lab at the time, over LANL’s alleged violation of state law governing hazardous waste disposal. The Compliance Order on Consent signed March 2005, usually referred to as simply the consent order, represented a détente between the parties under the terms of a new agreement: LANL would study its waste and clean it all up by 2015. 

But the consent order has one major shortcoming: It doesn’t specify which cleanup methods LANL must use. Instead, it compels LANL to evaluate the cleanup options for each disposal area and then pick one method to carry out.

“There is a successful model for excavation
[of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s waste sites],”
Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety
Executive Director Joni Arends says of the lab’s
Area B cleanup, which cost $110 million.
In the evaluation, LANL identified two options for Area G cleanup. The first is full excavation, as was done for Area B. The second calls for simply capping the dump zones, making them less vulnerable to erosion or other disturbance—but also failing to address the threat to the regional aquifer underneath. That’s why
environmental and nuclear disarmament groups call the cap-and-cover option “hide and hope.” 

The evaluation deems the cap-and-cover option the only cost-effective cleanup method, with a cool $186 million as its price tag. Excavation, on the other hand, would cost a whopping $29 billion. 

Congress hasn’t yet passed a budget bill that includes DOE. A few weeks before LANL released the Area G cleanup evaluation, though, the Senate priced the lab’s total cleanup budget for FY12 at a seemingly coincidental $185 million, effectively limiting the cleanup options to cap and cover.

But according to several sources—and common sense—the excavation estimate is wildly exaggerated.

Nuclear Watch New Mexico Operations and Research Director Scott Kovak and Executive Director Jay Coghlan say the cost of excavating Area B is a reasonable starting point for estimating the cost of excavating Area G. Adjusting for the difference in volume between the two areas, an Area G cleanup would be expected to cost about $1.6 billion—not $29 billion. Further, the actual excavation only makes up $8.9 billion of the higher cost estimate. More than $17 billion is allotted for “indirect capital costs,” including more than $7 billion for “professional management” of the cleanup operation.

“People complain about highway construction projects: ‘How many people do you need to have standing around supervising?’” Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program at Southwest Research Information Center, says. “In essence, LANL is saying it takes $7 billion to supervise a $9 billion excavation.

Well, if you’re hiring ditch diggers and you’re paying the guy to watch the ditch diggers almost as much money, you would say that’s pretty ridiculous. In this case, they would be paying [Los Alamos National Security, the private company that runs LANL] $7 billion to watch over a $9 billion excavation. That’s clearly exorbitant.”

Coghlan notes that LANL’s cost estimates reflect its interest, or lack thereof, in pursuing a project. Initial cost projections for LANL’s planned plutonium production facility, the CMRR building, were unrealistically low—$600 million, compared to the current cost estimate of $5.8 billion. 

“We think those numbers are screwy,” Nuclear
Watch New Mexico Executive Director
Jay Coghlan says of Los Alamos National
Laboratory’s $29 billion cost estimate for
excavating its largest waste dump.

“When they want to do something, they go in lowballing it, like the CMRR,” Coghlan says. “And then when they don’t want to do something, then they highball it.”

Hancock says LANL has another reason besides money to avoid comprehensive cleanup.

“Excavation would tell the public at large that this [waste] is really dangerous stuff and [that] LANL is extremely dangerous,” he says. “Excavating Area G would play into a mission for LANL that’s not what they want to say is their mission.”

Technically, LANL’s assessment of its cleanup options is based on hard data.

At $2 million a pop, groundwater monitoring wells installed across LANL’s dump sites are supposed to measure the waste’s environmental impact and direct the lab’s cleanup strategy. 

Robert Gilkeson, an Albuquerque hydrogeologist, was lead consultant on the wells’ installation between 1997 and 1999, when he left amid profound disagreements with LANL over the wells’ installation. After leaving the project, Gilkeson wrote numerous reports alleging that the wells were out of compliance with the law on various counts. 

According to Gilkeson, data from the wells are extremely unreliable. He says most of the wells are incorrectly sited; others were drilled using materials that alter the chemistry of the samples and mask the presence of contaminants.

Data from the wells support Gilkeson’s argument. Background metals that should remain at relatively constant levels fluctuate wildly, and radionuclides are similarly affected, Gilkeson says. One Area G well registered a 90 percent decline in zinc levels over a period of less than a year.

“I think there’s probably only a few wells that
are usable to detect contaminates of concern,”
hydrogeologist Robert Gilkeson says.


The state, too, has recognized potential inaccuracies. In a May 2007 letter, NMED Hazardous Waste Bureau Chief James Bearzi tells LANL to conduct lab and field studies to address “uncertainty” on whether the wells “are capable of providing reliable data” on the waste dumps’ environmental contamination.

Toni Chiri, spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Agency, the branch of DOE that runs LANL, says some wells in Technical Area 54, where Area G and several other disposal areas are located, underwent “rehabilitation and reconfiguration” after LANL evaluated them. Five additional wells were installed, Chiri says, and “are in full compliance” with federal groundwater monitoring requirements.

But further uncertainty surrounds Area G. LANL’s knowledge of its geological setting is hazy, with schematics of the area showing geologic zones the lab’s scientists know almost nothing about. At least one—and according to LANL’s own documents, most likely more—volcanic vents underlie Area G, creating a hazardous-waste highway into the groundwater.

Despite its recent high-profile efforts to get radioactive waste off the hill, the state’s role in protecting its residents from potential contamination has come into question.

In mid-September, Gov. Susana Martinez announced that accelerating shipments of transuranic waste to WIPP is “a top priority of her environmental agenda,” according to a press release. NMED spokesman Jim Winchester tells SFR that the department is prioritizing transuranic waste removal to reduce the danger posed by natural disasters like the Las Conchas fire, which came within 3½ miles of Area G.

Los Alamos National Laboratory rated its chosen cleanup method for Area G—capping and covering the dumps—a three out of five for “long term reliability and effectiveness” and “reduction of toxicity, mobility and volume” of waste. It rated the method it rejected—excavating the site—a five out of five in both categories.

Historically, less than 10 percent of shipments to WIPP nationwide have come from LANL. Safety measures Martinez initiated this summer, including certifying first responders to deal with the type of hazmat crisis that could occur on New Mexico’s highways, sound promising, and many activists tentatively applaud the idea of speeding up the waste removal.

At the same time, the announcement raises two concerns. 

A miner excavates disposal chambers at the
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, where
radioactive waste is permanently sealed in salt
caverns approximately one-half mile underground.

First, a 2003 initiative called “Quick to WIPP,” which was designed to clear out some of LANL’s waste in the wake of the Cerro Grande fire, exposed problems in accelerating the process. After repeated safety breaches, all WIPP shipments from LANL were suspended for 18 months, from October 2003-April 2005.

“Quick to WIPP turned out to be even slower to WIPP than what they did before,” Hancock says.
Second, activists worry that Martinez may be positioning herself as strong on nuclear waste cleanup—particularly in the wake of the Las Conchas fire—in order to deflect criticism for other missteps.

A recent example of such a misstep is the sudden embargo on information about Area G cleanup options.

On Oct. 14, NMED and LANL told a citizens’ group that they will indefinitely suspend the release of any information about Area G, or anything else to do with the consent order, while they work on modifying the order. Chiri told the group that NMED is working with the governor to better align the consent order with Martinez’ environmental priorities. 

Doing so behind closed doors—despite legal requirements for public participation—is unprecedented, even in the lab’s less-than-exemplary history of cleanup compliance. Federal regulations require LANL to give public notice of a modification request, hold a public meeting and allow a 60-day public comment period before taking action.

“[Martinez has] said she’s all about transparency, and there certainly are some things she’s done to promote transparency. But then, having something that’s extremely important to both near-term and long-term public health and safety done in a totally nontransparent way, that’s inconsistent with her message…” Hancock says. “Congress understood that involving the public makes for better cleanup decisions. The legal requirement [for public involvement] actually makes good sense.”

Martinez’ office referred all of SFR’s questions to Winchester, who refutes the idea that there is an “embargo” on information. He says NMED is committed to not only complying with public participation requirements, but also to “doing more than the bare minimum.” 

“[NMED] plans to fully engage the public if or when there are noteworthy developments,” Winchester writes in an email.

The cleanup money for Area B’s excavation came from President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which gave the lab a total of $220 million.

LANL spokeswoman Colleen Curran writes in an email that LANL will communicate with the public about cleanup plans for Area G after it finishes “analyzing and defining environmental cleanup work priorities for the upcoming year.” At that point, Curran says, the selection of a cleanup method for Area G “will be subject to extensive, formal public participation.”

The most obvious change the Martinez administration might make to the consent order would be to postpone cleanup deadlines; Winchester confirms that NMED is considering making such “scheduling changes.” Between 1996 and 2006 NMED waived a total of $3.4 million in fines for missed deadlines. Currently, the lab remains more than two years behind on some cleanup. A 2008 DOE audit found that “absent a dramatic change” in its approach, LANL was unlikely to meet long-term cleanup goals. That reflects another of the lab’s shortcomings: The audit report also notes that LANL has shown is a historical failure to quantify its cleanup funding needs.

LANL’s failure to identify how much cleanup should cost—a crucial first step in actually accomplishing radioactive waste cleanup—has been so egregious that even the House Appropriations Committee decried it this summer. In a report accompanying a budget proposal to slash $174 million from NNSA’s requested cleanup budget for LANL, the committee found that, despite creating radioactive waste for more than 50 years, the lab lacks any comprehensive plan for dealing with it, and the total cleanup cost “remains uncertain.”

“We think the [Gov. Susana] Martinez administration is all too eager to condone what the lab wants to do,” Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, says.

The committee does value environmental stewardship, though. Identifying defense cleanup as a funding priority, it went on to fund other NNSA sites at or even above the levels they requested.

Activists say part of the problem lies in officials’ tendency to prioritize the CMRR—a plutonium-pit manufacturing facility acknowledged even in Congressional reports to be of dubious defense value in the post-Cold War era—above cleanup needs. 

The construction budget for the CMRR could still go on the chopping block, but it isn’t likely. The Senate’s current recommendation is to fund the CMRR at 80 percent of the budget request and fund environmental cleanup at half the requested level. 

“It’s pretty hypocritical to be nickel-and-diming the cleanup programs while the weapons programs are expanding,” Coghlan says.

Los Alamos Study Group Executive Director Greg Mello points out that, given the continued recession and political pressure to slash government spending, cleanup funding may feel even more of a squeeze.

“For radionuclides, DOE’s basically regulating themselves,” Kovak says. “If LANL violates some DOE regulation, nothing really happens; they get told they have to do better next time.”

“Good ship DOE is sailing straight into a fiscal hurricane with all its sails aloft, and it’s going to have to pick which projects to save when some of them start overrunning their costs,” Mello says. “So the CMRR project has already increased by a factor of 10 or more over its initial cost, yet the White House is still quite committed to it—as opposed to the cleanup, which they aren’t committed to nearly to the same extent.”

“They’re not listening to their better angels,”
 Los Alamos Study Group Executive Director
Greg Mello says of a recent announcement that
Los Alamos National Laboratory and New Mexico
Environment Department are suspending
 indefinitely all release of information about
the lab’s environmental cleanup.

Jude McCartin, spokeswoman for US Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, says Bingaman is “concerned about the level of funding” in the appropriations bill, citing a letter he penned jointly with US Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development. In the Sept. 27 letter, the senators urge the subcommittee to fund LANL cleanup “at the highest level possible,” saying the threat posed by the Las Conchas fire highlights the need.

But the CMRR facility represents more than just competition for cleanup funding. Once operational, it also has the potential to affect LANL’s waste volume, causing the lab to generate additional nuclear waste.

Construction of the CMRR, according to its environmental impact statement, will generate 2,600 tons of construction waste alone. It will also produce an additional 95 tons of total waste, including transuranic and other radioactive waste, each year, the report states.

But there’s an even bigger problem. The CMRR is slated to be in operation until approximately 2041. WIPP is currently the nation’s only disposal site for transuranic waste and is running out of space. The site is scheduled to close in 2030. LANL representatives have been asked over and over—most recently at a Sept. 27 meeting—about their plan for disposing of CMRR waste after WIPP closes. They refuse to answer. Curran referred that question to DOE, whose spokeswoman Teresa Branon did not provide a response before press time.

Reading between the lines, however, perhaps LANL has given an answer. Beginning in the early 2000s, the lab has mulled expanding Area G to accommodate more waste. Under federal law, NMED can regulate what LANL does with chemical waste and waste that is a combination of chemical and radioactive waste. But neither the state nor the EPA has authority over radionuclides, which are deemed too important to national security to be regulated by an environmental oversight bureau. The Department of Energy regulates that waste itself, creating the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“The Las Conchas fire advanced 14 miles, made a beeline for the laboratory, touched the
western boundary and then the wind shifted…the lab got lucky. It dodged a bullet,” Coghlan says.

“For radionuclides, DOE’s basically regulating themselves,” Kovak says. “If LANL violates some DOE regulation, nothing really happens—they get told they have to do better next time.” 

That means that if the CMRR project goes forward, Area G will be expanded to hold more waste, and not even the EPA has the authority to stop it.

“If we’re going to build a new CMRR, we’re going to also be a permanent waste dump,” Mello says. “They don’t want to say that, but that’s the reality. They won’t answer the question [of where waste will go after WIPP closes] because the answer is, there is no alternative.”  SFR

Update: NMED contacted several local environmental groups Nov. 2, after this story was published, offering to hold a meeting with them to discuss the consent order. The date of the meeting is yet to be announced.


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