As Los Alamos National Laboratory waits for a final Congressional budget to give it the go-ahead to construct a controversial plutonium pit manufacturing facility, developments last week gave a rare window into the notoriously secretive lab.
• The New Mexico Environment Department announced Nov. 16 that it will push back cleanup deadlines set in the legal document governing LANL cleanup. Although NMED Secretary F David Martin appeared at the interim legislative Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee to make that announcement, he argued that public involvement in the decision isn’t required because NMED is changing only the deadlines, rather than the body of the document. LANL is already years behind in meeting some cleanup milestones.
• As questions mount concerning where radioactive waste will go after the nation’s only disposal facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, closes in 2030, Martin said the state is looking into storing additional types of waste at WIPP. Since plans to create a depository for higher-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada were scrapped last spring, state Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he’s concerned that WIPP could have the dubious distinction of becoming the new Yucca Mountain.
• LANL hasn’t updated some of its safety documents since 1995, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board revealed at its Nov. 17 meeting. All such documents are required to be updated annually. The document for Area G, LANL’s largest nuclear waste dump, hasn’t been revised since 2003, the board noted, describing site shortcomings that conjure a vision of Homer Simpson asleep in the control room at Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. Todd Davis, the board’s LANL site rep, reported that Area G operations are “significantly noncompliant” with nuclear safety procedures, fire protection, emergency preparedness and other requirements. Davis also stated that, despite previous warnings after recurring safety problems and the creation of a staff safety-training program, the “majority” of the engineers are “not knowledgeable on key safety parameters.”
• In an accident, Area G would emit radiation doses exceeding federal standards, Davis said. The Department of Energy requires its facilities to keep radiation emissions to no more than 25 millirems of radiation per year; in an accident scenario, LANL would emit a larger dose, Davis said. Although Los Alamos Site Office Manager Kevin Smith told the DNFSB that LANL is making great strides to improve, a DNFSB member scolded: “That should be significantly less than 25 millirems.”