Los Alamos Cleanup Past Due

As last deadline passes in existing cleanup plan, state and feds stalled in drafting a new plan

Had the cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratory gone as planned, this weekend would have marked the closure of a decade-long effort to remediate the effects of a 70-year legacy of making and maintaining nuclear bombs. Instead, the deadline stated in the 2005 consent order, an agreement between the US Department of Energy and the lab on how and when to clean up radioactive and toxic waste stored on site, often in unlined pits, trenches and shafts, and the contaminated buildings that housed lab operations, for the last major project, a cleanup of the largest waste dump site at the lab, came and went on Dec. 6. Instead, that milestone is still decades and millions of dollars away, and the state and federal government are beginning discussions to draft a new plan and schedule for it.

"That we don't have a schedule and viable plan is something I think puts us at a disadvantage as a state when it comes to securing funding," New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn said in a November meeting with the Northern New Mexico Concerned Citizens' Advisory Board.

Meanwhile, the state and federal government are still mired in the effort to settle the latest backfire from cleanup efforts, a spill that contaminated the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation's only long-term storage facility for transuranic waste. The parties won't move forward on crafting a new consent order, and a new set of deadlines and schedules, until that settlement is finalized.

"We are looking forward to finalizing the $73 million settlement agreement with the Department of Energy so that we may all move closer to the day when the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant will re-open and resume the safe underground disposal of transuranic waste from our nation's nuclear defense complex," Allison Scott Majure, NMED communications director, said in an emailed statement.

"It's delay, delay, delay," says Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a watchdog group that took the occasion to sound the alarm on the practices and failures that they see bogging down cleanup at the lab. "Under the Martinez administration, the [New Mexico Environment Department] granted more than 150 extensions, which is the opposite of enforcement, and essentially eviscerated the consent order and we see declining levels of funding for cleanup at Los Alamos."

The concern is that the longer this cleanup is postponed, the more it will fade from memory, and the less people will think to argue for a cleanup that could bring jobs to the area now, and protect its groundwater for the long term.

"We hear that we can't afford to do cleanup and at the same time the US government is ready to embark on a trillion dollar modernization of nuclear forces, so budget arguments against cleanup ring pretty hollow in our view," Coghlan says. "Go ask the public what they want, and ask northern New Mexicans what they want. They want cleanup over weapons."

The latest comments from New Mexico Environment Department indicate that the public will have some say in the cleanup, just not until after a draft is done that they can comment on. But that means public input comes in when the deal is done, Coghlan says, and he'd like to see it run the other way around. In a September letter to Flynn, and again during the November meeting, he reiterated the need for a public hearing and argued the existing consent order requires one.

It'll be up to NMED to decide whether to hold public hearings, and Flynn said in November that adding public hearings to the process would increase the time required to complete the new consent order—and the existing document, again, expires this month—by nine to 18 months and might only yield a long list of recommendations the state has no authority to act upon. That doesn't mean the department isn't committed to working on transparent lines, he said, and during that meeting he particularly sought input from the Northern New Mexico Concerned Citizens' Advisory Board on their priorities and concerns. 

The milestone missed this weekend was for Area G, the lab's primary waste disposal facility from 1957 to 1997. Hazardous wastes were disposed of there in unlined pits, trenches and shafts. The 10-year Consent Order agreed upon by the US Department of Energy and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2005 set Dec. 6, 2015 for a final report on remediating that waste, likely through a cap and cover approach.

While a short supply of funding has pinched cleanup, the efforts also weren't helped by the discovery, after the consent order was finalized, of a chromium plume that now seems to be approaching the regional aquifer and the 3706 Campaign to move 3,706 cubic meters of radioactive waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant—and the spill of contaminants and shut down at that plant.

Flynn has also expressed the hope that a new consent document, and a new set of deadlines rather than a long list of milestones far past their due dates, will assist the state in securing funding to speed cleanup efforts. There is not yet a set timeline for when that document will be completed. NMED maintains that the existing consent order stands until replaced.

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