Consenting to Cleanup

New Mexico looks to leverage more funding amid discussions of new plan for LANL's mess

Progress on cleanup of material at the Los Alamos National Laboratory left over from manufacturing the world’s first nuclear weapons has been impeded by limited budgets, the discovery of new plumes of contamination and a guiding document that, according to the state, prioritized studying problems over fixing them.

With that document—the 2005 consent order agreed to by the US Department of Energy, LANL and the New Mexico Environment Department—riddled with unmet deadlines and unfulfilled goals and set to expire at the end of the year, the state is beginning discussions on a new approach aimed at producing more results.

"The DOE recognizes the current schedule is not realistic. That's not a surprise to anyone," said New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary Ryan Flynn. "They have not begun to tackle the most difficult elements of the cleanup."

The initial volley in these talks was a presentation to the Northern New Mexico Citizens' Advisory Board on Thursday, Nov. 12, during which Flynn did not hesitate to explain that he's using the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, the nation's only long-term storage site for waste from nuclear projects, as leverage.

Flynn publicly released a number he says is the DOE's estimated cost for remaining cleanups at the lab: $1.2 billion, though the DOE official at the Thursday meeting would not confirm that amount. Flynn speculated that the price tag is based on the assumption the state will default to the DOE's often preferred remedy—cap-and-cover—and described that expectation as "misplaced." He also pointed out that $1.2 billion was the expected cleanup cost 10 years ago and has proved to widely miss the mark, as have the timelines proposed. The cleanup of Area G, where transuranic waste is stored and processed, for instance, was supposed to be done before August, according to the original consent order. The DOE now estimates that area still needs six to eight years of work.

Staying on track hasn't been helped by the late discovery of additional contaminants, like the chromium-6 plume seeping toward a regional aquifer that became evident in 2005, too late to include it in the consent order, though it's one of the more pressing, and expensive, components of the cleanup.

The state could use $255 million a year for Los Alamos, Flynn said, but his entreaties to Congress for more funding have been met with the response that there won't be more money than the already allocated $189 million without a realistic plan and a set completion date. The lab is the only DOE project in the country without one, Flynn said, though others are set 25 and even 55 years out, and he concedes those timelines may be about as reliable as a long-range weather forecast.

According to Nuclear Watch New Mexico, 8.4 percent of the $2.2 billion total budget for the Los Alamos National Laboratory goes to environmental cleanup, while 65 percent goes to weapons activities.

Officials from the New Mexico Environment Department say the existing cleanup plan's structure, which calls for a series of "deliverables" (the bulk of which are "investigation work plans"), has led to more investigation and suggested remedies than actual application of those remedies.

"Taxpayer time and taxpayer dollars were spent on deliverables that there was no intention to get done," Flynn says. "There's no requirement on DOE to take the next step, and that's what's missing from this process."

Doug Hintze, head of the DOE's Environmental Management unit in its Los Alamos Field Office, defended the agency's work. He claimed they've made progress on a significant portion of sites marked for cleanup and removed about 36,000 50-gallon drums of waste. Still, he said, "the time we celebrate is when we transfer that last waste off-site or clean up that last groundwater."

The proposed tactic for the next consent order, called "a campaign approach," would define the scope of work from start to finish for a specific area or priority, like groundwater, and would allow for public input on prioritizing projects and proposed remedies, with the state making the final call.

"From the DOE's perspective, it all has to get done," Hintze said.

"My biggest fear is that through this revised consent order, the NMED is basically giving up on being in the driver's seat," Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said during Thursday's meeting. Annual planning should be in the state's hands, he said. "I want you all dictating that. Not the DOE saying, 'This is what we think we can do.'"

Coghlan pointed to the Department of Energy's presence on the Government Accountability Office's high-risk list for 25 years as justifiying the skepticism.

"The department has a record of blown schedules and blown costs," he said.

But none of the revisions will move forward until the DOE and the state environment department have settled on violations that led to a release of radioactive materials at the WIPP. The federal government pledged millions for improving roadways used to transport that waste, as well as for training, environmental studies and stormwater management at Los Alamos. The holdup now, Flynn said, is the schedule.

The WIPP may further be used as a bargaining chip. Nuclear waste sites in South Carolina and Washington are the "900-pound gorillas," Hintze said, and those places draw the bulk of the DOE's cleanup funding each year—amounts measured in the billions, rather than the millions, like for LANL. But those facilities want to send their waste to the WIPP, the nation's only long-term storage facility for soil, debris, clothing and tools that contain small amounts of radioactive elements.

Two years ago, a request to complete the 3706 campaign, which aimed to remove 3,706 cubic meters of transuranic waste that was stored aboveground at Area G, was "undermined" by the state of Washington, Flynn said. At that point, Washington's Hanford nuclear waste cleanup was facing a problem that had affected 60 of 177 underground storage tanks and was expected to spread.

"We have zero patience for Washington [state] saying they're going to send a bunch of waste to New Mexico when not only do they get the lion's share of the budget, but they also actually kill funding requests that are bound for Los Alamos and then have the audacity to suggest that we should be taking their waste," Flynn said. "As long as I'm secretary, that will not happen."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said 65 percent of lab money goes to new weapons projects. Not all the weapons projects are new. 

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.