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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