The Risk to Waste Stored at Area G

We pride ourselves here at Nuclear Watch New Mexico on trying to stick to the facts as we best we know them and not being alarmist. That said, the Las Conchas Fire that has now crossed the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s (LANL’s) southwestern boundary is a real threat. For starters is the mind-blowing fact that in just 30 hours this fire has grown bigger than the notorious 2000 Cerro Grande Fire which burned ~48,000 acres (~5,000 acres within Lab boundaries), and traveled in a beeline 12 miles to get to the Lab. With forecasted days of strong winds and gusts and high temperatures it’s hard to say where this fire might go and what it might do. Pray for rain.

We are not so concerned about the hardened facilities at the Lab constructed of concrete and cleared of combustible materials (i.e., trees and brush) around their perimeters. We doubt that there would be any breech to their containment that would let contaminants escape (with one caveat below). But we do have concerns. One is the fact that over 6 decades the Lab has blown up a lot of uranium and depleted uranium in dynamic high explosives experiments in the general area in front of the fire. We don’t know to what extent the shrapnel or debris has been cleaned up and could possibly be aerosolized.

Another concern, given both the velocity and ferocity of the Las Conchas Fire, is whether any Lab facilities loose their power and back up generators failed to work for whatever reason. In that case containment systems could fail with unknown safety implications.

LANL TA-54 Material Disposal Area G
Domes at LANL's TA-54 Material Disposal Area G

But our biggest concern is whether the fire could reach the fabric buildings (essentially very large tents) at Technical Area-54’s Area G that store some 20,000 barrels of plutonium-contaminated wastes from nuclear weapons research and production. We recommend that the public use satellite-based fire detection data and fire intelligence information published by the US Forest Service to monitor the situation (see related post for instructions on how use it). From that we can “see” that the leading edge of the fire is a little more than three miles from Area G.

The good news is that the fire should slow down if and when it heads toward Area G because it will have to leave the mostly ponderosa forest into pinon and juniper country (which doesn’t crown fire like ponderosa). Also, the Lab has cleared trees and vegetation around Area G, and the fire would have to jump some major canyons just to get there.

So here’s hoping the fire doesn’t get anywhere close to Area G. But watch out if it does. The public should be concerned and really pay close attention. It might be a good time to take a road trip somewhere away from being downwind. This is one fire that cannot be underestimated.


The Corporate Folly of Nuclear Power

Meltdowns at the reactors are not the biggest threat, as horrific as they are. Instead the biggest threat is the spent fuel rod pools if they lose circulating water.

The reactors at Fukushima were designed by US General Electric, whose corporate slogan is “bringing good things to life.” The Fukushima reactors had their back up diesel generators at ground level, hence a few feet above sea level, and their spent fuel pools on the “top deck” of the reactor buildings, the equivalent of 3-4 stories up. When the earthquake knocked out the electric power required to circulate absolutely essential liquid coolant the diesel generators kicked in as designed. So far so good.

But then the diesel generators were wiped out 55 minutes later by the tsunami (duh!, the Fukushima nuclear power complex is right on the coast – didn’t the “experts” think of that?). The resulting lack of circulating water has precipitated this crisis that is now on the verge of being an unprecedented catastrophe. A spent fuel rod fire can release far more radioactivity than Chernobyl (see below).

The pathetic irony is that to prevent this catastrophe Tokyo Electric MUST get circulating water UP to the spent fuel rod pools because the diesel generators were swamped DOWN below. The placement of the generators and the waste pools relative to each other was exactly and tragically back *sswards. Do not trust “EXPERTS!,” meaning that citizen activism is always required. IT IS A MUST!

I shun hysteria, but this situation is way serious, it could really get out of control. Pray for the Japanese people, already the victims of history’s only two (so far) atomic attacks. If the fuel rods go count this as the 3rd attack, albeit self-inflicted. Nuclear operations require perfect human operation 24/7/eternity (i.e., as long as we run them). Humans are fallible, and nature can shrug us off like flies.

Get rid of nukes, period (except medicine). It takes only once on the balance sheet to wipe out any potential benefits, and indebt seven future generations environmentally, economically, politically and genetically all at the same time. It’s NOT worth it.

To end on a cheery note (not!): “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” Shakespeare’s King Lear, 4. 1. The gods may do what they want, but don’t let international corporate nuclear power interests kill us. Fight back!

Mother Earth Gives Nuclear Renaissance a Black Eye

Our hearts and prayers go out go out to the people of Japan.

As Japan is faced with the possibility of nuclear meltdowns in five earthquake-damaged nuclear reactors, the U.S. and other countries are re-considering nuclear plans. While it is unlikely that radiation that has leaked or will leak from the Japanese reactor accidents will reach the United States.  This could change if there is an explosion and/or fire affecting one or more of the reactor cores or spent fuel pools. The accident at Chernobyl (25th anniversary is April 26th) affected the entire Northern Hemisphere because of a massive explosion in the core, and an out-of-control fire that burned for days.  This same scenario is unlikely in Japan. But reactors have been damaged beyond repair and old questions are being raised again.

In the U.S., Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Democratic Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts have made statements – “But I think we’ve got to kind of quietly put, quickly put, the brakes on until we can absorb what has happened in Japan as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami and then see what more, if anything, we can demand of the new power plants that are coming on line,” Lieberman stated. “Any plant that is being considered for a seismically vulnerable area in the United States should be reconsidered right now,” Markey said, adding that the Japanese earthquake registering 8.9 in magnitude was “a hundred times greater in intensity” than the level that U.S. plants are built to withstand.

Countries in Europe are pausing to re-consider, also. Japan’s nuclear emergency Monday prompted Germany and Switzerland to halt nuclear programmes as anxious Europe scrambled to review cross-border safety while safeguarding the powerful industry. More

Why were the Fukushima reactors at sea level? Japan’s nuclear accident exposes the dilemma of whether to build power plants on tsunami-prone coasts or inland sites where water supplies are unreliable, a problem likely to be aggravated by climate change, experts say. (More from Reuters)

What happened at the Fukushima plant? “Three of its six reactors were in operation when the earthquake hit. The reactors — which went into service between 1970 and 1979 — are designed to shut down automatically when a quake strikes, and emergency diesel generators began the task of pumping water around the reactors to cool them down. However, these stopped about an hour later. The failure of the back-up generators has been blamed on tsunami flooding by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).” More –

This event shows how Mother Earth can have her way with the best-made plans. The power company said that that 7.9 was the highest magnitude for which they tested the safety for their No. 1 and No. 2 nuclear power plants in Fukushima. The original magnitude was estimated to be 8.9, which would have been 10 ten times the magnitude 7.9 that the structures were tested for. The Japan Meteorological Agency up-rated Friday’s earthquake to 9.0 on the Richter scale, meaning that it was twice as powerful as initially thought. More

Here at home, we have no commercial reactors in New Mexico, but there are national nuclear weapons facilities, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, which currently has plans for a $5 billion addition to the Lab’s plutonium weapons production complex. This addition, called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement project Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) is being designed to survive a 7.0 magnitude earthquake without releasing plutonium.  Much of the estimated cost is to seismically qualify the CMRR-NF to be built on the fault-ridden Pajarito Plateau. The plans call for a storage vault with the capacity of six metric tons of radioactive materials, such as plutonium.

Now would be a good time to re-consider any plans that make us feel invincible.


LANL Gestures to Gas Shortage

In response to statewide natural gas outages across New Mexico, LANL closed February 4th. The gesture may reflect that LANL gas use is roughly the equivalent[1] of 22,310 people, nearly the same as the 25,000 people that media reports are without recent service.

Although shutting down LANL would almost make up for the shortage in gas affecting northern New Mexico, it is not quite that equitable. LANL and the Los Alamos town site have their own dedicated gas pipeline coming from the NW San Juan Basin, in New Mexico. Whereas Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Espanola, Taos etc are fed natural gas from the Permian Basin gas fields in Texas. Therefore it is questionable that curtailing operations (which cost taxpayers ~$6 million/per day) at LANL helps to relieve gas supplies in northern New Mexican communities.

It also begs the question of why aren’t Northern New Mexico gas supplies coming from the plentiful San Juan basin, one of the largest reserves in the nation, which is geographically closer? Espanola and Taos are reportedly suffering in recent subzero temperatures because they are at the “end of the line” of gas coming from Texas. But the privileged Lab and Los Alamos town site would not be subject to the same short supply.

[1] According to the 2006 LANL Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement the Lab uses an average of 37.4 million cubic meters of natural gas annually, or 1.32 billion cubic feet (1 cubic meter = 35.31 cubic feet). Wikipedia says Americans use 18.4 trillion cubic feet per year. U.S. population is around 311 million people, hence per person use = 59,164 cubic ft/yr. Population of Espanola = ~10,000, hence uses ~ 591,640,000 cubic ft/yr. Population of Taos = 5,550, hence uses ~ 328,360,200 cubic ft/yr. Therefore, LANL uses twice as natural gas as Espanola, 4 times as much as Taos. TA-55 (site of plutonium pit production) alone uses 45 million cubic ft per year.

NNSA Will Not be “Burdened” by Costs for Clean-Up at New KCP

I found what I think is an interesting quote concerning the new KCP  in NNSA’s FY 2011 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (which is the plan that NNSA showboats to Congress).

“Finally, because the new facility [KCP] will be leased, there will be no capital investment and NNSA will not be burdened by costs for legacy disposition should the mission ever be discontinued.”   NNSA FY11 SSMP Annex D, p. 44,

This sounds to me like the federal government is walking away from any future obligation to clean up any contamination at the new Kansas City Plant. I think that interesting given how there is no real federal commitment to clean up the old plant which is badly contaminated.

The rest of NNSA’s FY 2011 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (summary and Annex A) can be viewed.
Annex B and C are classified.

If NNSA won’t be burdened for clean-up, who will?

Once Again – It’ll Cost More and Take Longer

Decades of nuclear materials production at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Savannah River Site in South Carolina have left 37 million gallons of radioactive liquid waste in 49 underground storage tanks. This is just a small part of DOE’s Cold War cleanup legacy that currently has an estimate of $360+ billion to remediate across the country. This estimate keeps going up.

The United States Government Accountability Office released a September 2010 report about persistent concerns with efforts to cleanup these underground radioactive waste tanks. Like so many GAO reports before, the findings are that it will cost more and take longer:

Emptying, cleaning, and permanently closing the 22 underground liquid radioactive waste tanks at the Savannah River Site is likely to cost significantly more and take longer than estimated in the December 2008 contract between DOE and Savannah River Remediation, LLC (SRR). Originally estimated to cost $3.2 billion, SRR notified DOE in June 2010 that the total cost to close the 22 tanks had increased by more than $1.4 billion or 44 percent. Much of this increase is because DOE’s cost estimate in the September 2007 request for proposals that formed the basis of the December 2008 contract between DOE and SRR was not accurate or comprehensive.

Legacy cleanup at Los Alamos is currently estimated by the Lab to be around $2-3 billion.  This is required to be complete by 2015 by a consent Order agreement with the State of NM.  This estimate includes the Lab’s version of cleanup, which is leaving most the waste in the ground perched above our aquifer. Actually removing the waste is estimated at $20 billion. The final decision on what type of cleanup will be made by the State, which would like to have you the public’s input.

Cleanup at Los Alamos is one project that needs to cost more.

A Tale of Two Cross-Sections

At the recent LANL Hazardous Waste Permit Hearings, the public was presented with two cross-sections of the current understanding of the geology under the Lab’s largest nuclear waste disposal area, Tech Area 54. These cross sections are important because the NM Environment Department, with public input, will soon have to decide the final disposition of the over 800,000 cubic yards of radioactive and hazardous waste buried there. The options range from leaving the waste in place with some sort of cover to exhuming the waste.

The geology under the site is very complicated and includes layers of lava flows, ash falls, and old stream beds. The waste is buried in unlined pits, shafts and trenches and is perched 800 – 1000 feet above our sole-source aquifer. Some of the more soluble contaminants, such as tritium, perchlorate, explosives, and chromium have already made their way to the aquifer from other parts of the Lab. The cross-sections are needed to understand the contaminant pathways from the dumps to the aquifer.

First, the Lab’s version – (click on image for larger picture)

The Lab's TA-54 Cross-Section Version

The MDAs, or Material Disposal Areas or dumps, are across the top. MDA G is the largest by far. The PM-#s are wells where drinking water is drawn. The R-#s are characterization and contaminant sampling wells. The elevation is on each side. The top of the regional aquifer is the horizontal blue line near 5800′. There are some perched aquifers shown, too.  The one question is a new structure that the Lab is calling a “dike” discovered by well R-22.

The NM Environment Department’s Version – (click on image for larger picture)

NMED's TA-54 Cross-Section

The Environment Department’s version gives a different interpretation of the fractures that could be pathways to the aquifer. It has many question marks, including the “vent” and the perched aquifers.

We appreciate the two versions. With so many unknowns, with so much waste, and with such a potential negative impact to our aquifer, the most protective course would be to remove the waste.


When Jeff Bingaman replaced Pete Domenici as New Mexico’s senior Senator, environmentalists were pleased. But is Bingaman the new Domenici? Is he stepping into Pete’s radioactive shoes as chief procurer of pork for nuclear contractors, the environment be damned?
Consider this: Bingaman’s so-called “Clean Energy” legislation sticks taxpayers with a huge financial burden to cover unlimited loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants– yet another bailout for fat-cats who’ve already bankrupted us, just like the banks, insurance execs and military contractors. No nuclear plant has ever been built on schedule or within budget. And with no remotely viable solution to the nasty spent-fuel-rod problem, all eyes will be on NM’s sadly flawed WIPP repository as a place to stick the waste out of sight and out of mind. New Mexicans were promised that power-plant waste would never come to WIPP, but with Yucca Mountain in Nevada getting the red light, how long can we trust in that long-ago promise?
Now how about the weapons side of the nuclear equation? Talking out of both sides of his mouth like a true US Senator, Bingaman has weakly endorsed mission diversification at the national weapons Labs, then backed the fat increases for bomb facilities and new designs in Obama’s ghastly proposed federal budget for 2011. Bingaman lamely says this tragic misuse of tax dollars is “good for our state.” Hey, Jeff! If something is bad for the nation and bad for the world, it is not good for our state. And those new radioactive and chemical wastes from cranking out H-bombs will all become a permanent feature here in New Mexico. Thanks for drowning us in nuclear waste from all sides, Senator!!! You’re dooming us to an abusive relationship with a couple of dead-end industries whose profits end up elsewhere, when we could be creating a much brighter and cleaner future for our lovely state. Nuclear waste is permanent. The handful of jobs we get out of it are temporary–the way a Senate seat should be.
Friends, if this makes you as mad as it makes me, give Bingaman a trip to the woodshed. His toll-free NM # is 800-443-8658 and his DC office is 202-224-5521.

DOE Fails to Make Minimum Payment on Environmental Cleanup

Last I looked, the Cold War ended 18 years ago. We won. OK, I used to think we won, but there is still a big debt that needs to be paid off before any victory party.

The Department of Energy’s Agency Financial Report for Fiscal Year 2009 (Pg.52) gives some sobering figures. Even with extra Recovery funding ($5.1 billion) and all the usual appropriations (about $6 billion) the Department’s “total unfunded environmental cleanup and disposal liabilities” still increased by over $1 billion in 2009. The current estimate for the cleanup of environmental contamination resulting from past operations of the nuclear weapons complex is $262.7 billion. Given that this estimate will surely increase yearly, at this rate, DOE will pay off its existing Cold War environmental liability, well…never.

Yet the Department continues on a shopping spree and rings up new $4 billion facilities that will generate new wastes. DOE must stop creating new waste when the legacy waste is still posing a threat, and should greatly increase the annual cleanup funding at least until it starts to make a dent in the amount owed. Until then, somebody please, cut up the credit card.

More from the Agency Financial Report for Fiscal Year 2009 –

“At all sites where these activities took place, some environmental contamination occurred. This contamination was caused by the production, storage, and use of radioactive materials and hazardous chemicals, which resulted in contamination of soil, surface water, and groundwater. The environmental legacy of nuclear weapons production also includes thousands of contaminated buildings and large volumes of waste and special nuclear materials requiring treatment, stabilization, and disposal. Approximately one-half million cubic meters of radioactive high-level, mixed, and low-level wastes must be stabilized, safeguarded, and dispositioned, including a quantity of plutonium sufficient to fabricate thousands of nuclear weapons. “ (Pg.52)

Kansas City (Nuke Plant) Blues

Some pertinent points on the new Kansas City Plant, prompted by the Kansas
City Star article

•  Groundbreaking will probably be sometime after March given that final
private financing still has to be found.

•   However, groundbreaking for a major new U.S. nuclear weapons production
plant, costing $4.76 billion to build and operate over its first 20 years,
is still likely to occur just before the May 2010 NonProliferation Treaty
Review Conference. It would be nice if the U.S. had some explaining to do at
the UN over that.

•   Originally reported construction cost was $500 million. Now we’re up to
$673 million.

•   Previously projected tax abatements to be granted by the Kansas City
municipal government were $41 million. Now we’re up to $65 million ($2.6
million/year over 25 years).

•   Infrastructure improvements (roads and utilities) enabled by the tax
abatements will benefit the private developers in their other nearby
business ventures, including a planned intermodal,international
transportation hub (part of the so-called “NAFTA Superhighway”).

•   Kansas City’s Planned Industrial Expansion Authority (PIEA), enabled by
Missouri state law to fight urban blight, will issue bonds to private
investors. The PIEA declared a producing soy bean field blighted in order to
provide the basis for this (hardly urban blight).

• Through the PIEA, a municipal government (Kansas City, MO) will hold fee
simple to this new federal nuclear weapons production plant
(i.e., own it).
The PIEA will grant the private developers a 20-year or more
lease-to-purchase, after which the private developers will own this new
federal nuclear weapons production plant.

• Guaranteed subleases to the National Nuclear Security Administration
(NNSA) via the General Services Administration (GSA) effectively guarantee
the profits of the private developers and their ability to pay the bonds
off. “Coincidentally,” one of the two private development partners happened
to own the land that the new Plant is to be built upon before GSA/NNSA
selected it.

•   GSA/NNSA put out a solicitation for bids to private developers a good
month or so before they issued public notice of an environmental assessment
for the new Kansas City Plant under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Nevertheless, the two agencies have always denied any predetermination.

Complete excavation of Area G now estimated at only $9.1 billion

Q: How much does it cost to cleanup a 65-acre, 50-year-old,  nuclear weapons laboratory unlined dump full of low-level radioactive waste (LLW), radioactively contaminated infectious waste, asbestos contaminated material, transuranic waste, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and much more?

A: About 8 years of the Lab’s nuclear weapons activities budget.

First, define cleanup. (Closure is the better term to use.)

The Lab recently submitted a revised (September 2009) corrective measures evaluation (CME) of Material Disposal Area (MDA) G, located within Area G of Technical Area 54, at Los Alamos National Laboratory to the NM Environment Department. The goal of the CME report was to recommend a corrective measures alternative for closure of the site and to address contamination releases in compliance with the March 1, 2005, Compliance Order on Consent (Consent Order).

This CME report screened 14 corrective measures alternatives based on their ability to meet the regulatory threshold and other qualitative screening criteria. Seven of the 14 alternatives evaluated met the screening criteria and capital costs were estimated:

1. Alternative 1B: maintenance of existing cover – $9.4 million;

2. Alternative 2B: evapotranspiration (ET) cover – $64.8 million;

3. Alternative 2C: ET cover with partial waste excavation – $46.5 million;

4. Alternative 2D: ET cover with partial waste excavation, targeted stabilization – $48 million;

5. Alternative 5B: complete waste excavation, waste treatment, off-site disposal – $9.1 billion (This is down from last year’s estimate of $20 billion.);

6. Alternative 5C: complete waste excavation, on-site waste treatment, disposal of wastes in a RCRA Subtitle C landfill – $6.1 billion; and

7. Alternative 5D: complete waste excavation, on-site waste treatment, disposal of wastes in a RCRA corrective action management unit – $6.1 billion.(All alternatives include monitoring and maintenance, and soil vapor extraction, but don’t include a 55% contingency.)

The Lab’s recommended corrective measures alternative is Alternative 2C.

The right thing to do would be Alternative 5B, complete waste excavation. The Lab could cover the $9.1 billion by redirecting the $1.2 billion it spends annually on nuclear weapons activities.

The hard-working folks over at NMED have to make the final decision, and there will be opportunities for public input.

Find the report MDA G CME R1 Sept 09 [Warning, it’s 14MB]

Operations at Plutonium Facility stood down due to fire suppression system

In the latest of a string of fire system deficiencies on Wednesday September 30th, LANL management declared the fire suppression system inoperable in PF-4 at TA-55. Facility activities were placed in stand-by mode, which were still stood down as of three weeks later on Oct. 23rd.

DNFSB explained that the stand down was based on recent hydraulic calculations that concluded the system does not achieve the water density coverage required. Basically, the sprinklers in 13 of approximately 100 fire suppression areas at PF-4 cannot meet the current required gallons per minute estimated to effectively extinguish a fire. (Read the Oct. 2nd-23rd DNFSB reports)

One has to wonder – What is the cost to the taxpayer of PF-4 being stood down for nearly a month?

These reports come on the heels of last week’s DNFSB recommendation that the Lab must immediately do something about its risk to the public of a seismically induced fire at PF-4, which was estimated to exceed the DOE guidelines by more than 100 times. In a worst-case situation, an earthquake-induced fire could set free enough breathable plutonium that a person on the perimeter of the facility would receive a lethal dose of radiation.

Speaking of seismically induced fires, I am reminded of a March 2007 LANL report, Seismic Fragility of the LANL Fire Water Distribution System (LA-14325), which explains how numerous valves in the fire water distribution system at the Lab would have to be manually closed to insure proper pressure to facilities on fire after a seismic event.

Granted, these may be low probability events, but they have high consequences. The Lab is playing with fire by not adequately funding upgrades to its existing fire systems now, before embarking construction of any new facilities.

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