[NukeWatch would amend this headline to add “‘lightly’ grills” – The DNFSB was asking tough questions, but DOE and the LANL contractors were not forthcoming with those answers.]
“Much of the discussion involved complex, technical subjects. But board Chairwoman Joyce Connery said a basic complaint is the lack of response the board has gotten at times when raising concerns in letters sent to the lab and nuclear security agency.”
A federal watchdog agency on Wednesday grilled top officials from Los Alamos National Laboratory and the agency that oversees nuclear weapons about ongoing safety concerns and how they aim to resolve them as the lab gears up to produce an unprecedented number of warhead triggers.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent organization within the executive branch, questioned lab Director Thom Mason and National Nuclear Security Administration head Jill Hruby about safety issues that could prove important as the lab moves toward making 30 bomb cores, known as pits, per year by 2026.
The board provides recommendations and advice to the president and the secretary of energy regarding public health and safety issues at Department of Energy defense nuclear facilities.
The daylong hearing was held at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. It is the first time in several years the safety board has held a public hearing in the Santa Fe area.
“’We felt that the cleanup was not moving as quickly as it should be moving and then we entered into litigation with DOE. It was moved from state court to federal court. The current LANL cleanup end date for DOE is 2036, which is in the Consent Order, and we don’t feel that they’re going to be able to make that timeline based on the progress they’re making at this time,’ Catechis said.”
New Mexico Environment Department Resource Protection Division Director Chris Catechis is not mincing his words when he discusses NMED’s position on the hexavalent chromium plume discovered in 2005 which is part of the legacy waste clean-up mission at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
At a recent meeting of the Legislative Interim Committee on Radioactive & Hazardous Waste, both Catechis and Rep. Christine Chandler of Los Alamos raised concerns that Department of Energy Environmental Management program at LANL is not taking an aggressive enough approach to characterization of the chromium plume.
Catechis explained the 2016 Consent Order between DOE and NMED dealing with legacy waste from LANL left since the Manhattan Project era. The 2016 Consent Order, which is an update from the original 2005 Consent Order, NMED and DOE officials meet each year to set up a series of milestones, campaigns and targets for the coming federal fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Catechis said an example of those is the Chromium Interim Measure that deals with the characterization of the chromium plume.
Santa Fe, NM – On Good Friday afternoon, just before the Easter weekend, the Department of Energy (DOE) posted its “Laboratory Tables”, the best source for site specific budget information. DOE boosts funding for the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to $4.6 billion in FY 2023 (+21%), which begins October 1. With another typical $300 million in “Work for Others” (the Defense Department, FBI, CIA, etc.), LANL’s total institutional funding for FY 2023 will be approximately $4.9 billion.
Out of that, $3.6 billion is slated for core nuclear weapons research and production programs. The percentage of nuclear weapons funding at LANL has steadily grown as the Lab increasingly banks its future on plutonium “pit” bomb core production. A decade ago, nuclear weapons programs were 59% of LANL’s total institutional budget. Today it is 73%. Moreover, the remainder of Lab programs (including nonproliferation and cleanup) either directly or indirectly support nuclear weapons programs, for example through a 6% internal tax for “laboratory-directed research and development” that has historically tilted towards nuclear weapons.
LANL’s largest funding increase is for “Plutonium Modernization”, jumping 61% to $1.6 billion in FY 2023. Within that, funding to expand the production of plutonium “pit” bomb cores at LANL’s aging plutonium pit production facility is increased 68% to $588 million.
Federal officials would agree only to study the possibility of clearing out waste from the Area G pit and wouldn’t commit to following through, said Jay Coghlan, Nuclear Watch’s executive director.
“Ideally, the transuranic nuclear waste would go to WIPP, and the low-level radioactive materials would be buried in a landfill with liners and a leachate collection system. Capping and covering the on-site pit is problematic because it’s unlined and could allow toxins to leach into the groundwater,”
Los Alamos National Laboratory will do extensive waste cleanup and fix a long-broken monitoring system for polluted runoff to comply with a settlement of a watchdog’s lawsuit.
The U.S. Department of Energy and Nuclear Watch New Mexico agreed to a settlement in federal court last week to end six years of litigation for what the watchdog group characterized as neglect of longtime issues.
“It’s now a legal obligation on the part of DOE,” said Jay Coghlan, Nuclear Watch’s executive director. “I do expect DOE will be cooperative in this.”
This week Nuclear Watch New Mexico announced the successful settlement of its lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) about its slow cleanup of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). After a six-year court battle, the settlement requires DOE to re-establish a monitoring station on the Rio Grande in order to protect the Buckman Direct Diversion Project, which provides about 40 percent of the drinking water for Santa Fe residents. The monitoring station was destroyed in 2013 during a major flood event. https://bddproject.org/
The settlement also includes the cleanup of 158 corrugated metal culverts containing cemented radioactive liquid waste buried at the Area G dump; a feasibility study for the excavation of a waste pit, also at Area G; and the investigation, characterization and, if necessary, clean up of 290 specific dumps scattered across the LANL site.
To read the press release with a link to the Settlement Agreement:
Santa Fe, NM – Today, Nuclear Watch New Mexico is announcing successful settlement of a lawsuit it brought against the Department of Energy (DOE) over its slow cleanup of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The watchdogs’ lawsuit alleged violations of a 2005 Consent Order, which was a site-wide cleanup agreement between the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and DOE to address radioactive and toxic wastes at the Lab. NMED has since sued DOE to terminate a revised 2016 Consent Order issued under the Martinez Administration that is far weaker than the original 2005 Order.
After a six-year court battle, NukeWatch’s settlement agreement requires DOE to:
- Reestablish a surface water flow monitoring station near where the Los Alamos Canyon meets the Rio Grande. This is critical because the Canyon has long been a known pathway for plutonium contaminants to migrate as far as 20 miles south to Cochiti Lake, a popular recreational area. The Buckman Direct Diversion Project (BDDP), three miles south of the Canyon, supplies drinking water directly out of the river to the City and County of Santa Fe. The original monitoring station warned the BDDP to close its intake gates as a precaution during stormwater events and allowed characterization of the radioactive contaminants in the stormwater flows.” However, it was destroyed during a 2013 flood and DOE had refused to reinstall it ever since, despite repeated BDDP requests. Meanwhile, during that same period of time, funding doubled for LANL’s nuclear weapons research and production programs that caused the radioactive and toxic pollution to begin with.
A lab critic said he’s concerned about flaws in worker training, equipment and inspections contributing to glove box breaches as LANL gears up for producing plutonium pits for warhead triggers.
“As things ramp up, we’re bound to have more problems,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
Los Alamos National Laboratory had two additional breaches of a sealed radioactive-material compartment known as a glove box in January, bringing the total to three in one month, according to a government watchdog.
One employee damaged a glove attached to a sealed compartment while manually moving material with a disabled trolley through the enclosed space, causing enough of a release to contaminate the person’s face.
The Department of Energy (DOE) has submitted a report to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) declaring its preferred plan to “cap and cover” radioactive and toxic wastes at one of the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s (LANL’s) oldest dumps. DOE’s $12 million cleanup-on-the-cheap plan for Material Disposal Area C will create a permanent nuclear waste dump above our regional groundwater. In contrast, DOE has asked Congress for one billion dollars for expanded plutonium “pit” bomb core production at LANL for fiscal year 2022 alone.
LANL used to falsely claim that groundwater contamination was impossible and even asked NMED for a waiver from even having to monitor for it. We now know that there is extensive groundwater contamination from hexavalent chromium (the carcinogen in the Erin Brockovich movie) and high explosives. Traces of plutonium have been detected 1,300 feet under Area C in regional groundwater monitoring wells. The dump also has a large toxic gaseous plume of industrial solvents known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which threatens nearby facilities.
Summary: The State of New Mexico should again demonstrate the political will it successfully displayed in 2005 when it compelled the federal Department of Energy to agree to an enforceable Consent Order governing cleanup at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. At the Lab’s request the Martinez Administration eviscerated that Consent Order with more than 150 milestone extensions. Further, in a process riddled with conflicts of interest, it negotiated a revised 2016 Consent Order that subordinated cleanup to the budget that DOE wants. The need to protect New Mexico’s environment and precious water resources should drive the Lab’s cleanup budget, not DOE’s planned budget of expanded nuclear weapons research and production. The incoming Biden Administration could offer new opportunity to renegotiate a Consent Order that is in the Land of Enchantment’s best interests. The present New Mexico State Administration should pursue that opportunity.
Why renegotiate the 2016 Consent Order?
• In June 2016 the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), the Department of Energy (DOE) and Los Alamos National Security, LLC (then the Lab’s contractor) signed a revised Consent Order governing cleanup at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The new Consent Order was an unfortunate step backwards in compelling comprehensive, genuine cleanup at the Lab.
• The State of New Mexico should have kept the original, enforceable 2005 Consent Order that it fought so hard for under the Richardson Administration (including successfully defending itself against DOE lawsuits), modified as needed for cleanup schedules and a final compliance date.
• Under Gov. Martinez, the revised 2016 Consent Order was a giveaway by NMED to DOE and the Lab, surrendering the strong enforceability of the old Consent Order. As documented below, it is clearly the reverse of the 2005 Consent Order, whose underlying goal was to make DOE and LANL get more money from Congress for accelerated cleanup.
• The inevitable outcome is slow cleanup with no plans for comprehensive cleanup. DOE proposed a 46% cut to LANL cleanup funding in FY 2021. In contrast, funding for LANL’s nuclear weapons research and production programs that caused the need for cleanup to begin with has doubled over the last decade. The planned expansion of those programs will result in more contamination and radioactive and hazardous wastes.
• The incoming Biden Administration could possibly offer better opportunity for renegotiating a Consent Order with DOE that is in New Mexico’s best interests.
Worcester Polytechnic Institute Project 2020
PLUTONIUM-239 AND CHROMIUM-6 CONTAMINATION AT LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY
Analyzing contaminant migration and assessing remediation
The goal of this project is to raise questions regarding the problem of groundwater contamination migration at Los Alamos National Laboratory to guide discussion of remediation approaches on the property.
A Reduced Operations Alternative is not only a reasonable alternative but is in the actual best interests of the nation.
Such an alternative would best preserve stockpile reliability by foregoing production of new pits that may deviate from tested designs; conservatively maintain the existing, extensively tested nuclear weapons stockpile; augment and accentuate nonproliferation programs, especially the development of monitoring and verification technologies that could help underpin a future world free of nuclear weapons; and augment and accentuate cleanup programs that are truly comprehensive, permanently eliminating the threat to groundwater.
October 18, 2022
LANL SWEIS COMMENTS
NNSA Los Alamos Field Office
3747 W. Jemez Road
Los Alamos, NM 87544
Dear National Nuclear Security Administration:
Nuclear Watch New Mexico hereby submits these scoping comments on the new Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement (SWEIS).
First, NNSA should complete a new nation-wide programmatic environmental impact statement on expanded plutonium pit production. A new LANL Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement should then be “tiered” off of that document and address all of these issues outlined in these scoping comments, and in particular the site-specific impacts of expanded plutonium pit production. In the event that NNSA continues its arguably illegal behavior in not completing a new PEIS, a new draft LANL SWEIS should nevertheless analyze the issues outlined in these scoping comments, particularly expanded plutonium pit production.
LOS ALAMOS, N.M. – EM crews have successfully completed a complex project that protects cultural and ecological resources throughout the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) site while enabling more thorough monitoring and characterization of a contaminant plume in groundwater.
Crews with Newport News Nuclear BWXT-Los Alamos (N3B), the EM Los Alamos Field Office’s cleanup contractor, implemented angled drilling for a new monitoring well, a method that safeguards critical water resources and ensures preservation of pueblos’ nearby cultural sites.
The new well, named R-71, is located on the northwestern boundary of a hexavalent chromium plume in Mortandad Canyon.
Hexavalent chromium was flushed into Sandia Canyon between 1956 and 1972, when LANL personnel used the contaminant as a corrosion inhibitor in the cooling towers of its non-nuclear power plant. During that timeframe, chromium was used industry-wide for such purposes.
The Corrective Measures Evaluation Report for Material Disposal Area G, Consolidated Unit 54-013(b)-99, at Technical Area 54, Revision 3 was released in September 2011. It’s document numbers are ERID-206324, LA-UR-11-4910, and EP2011-0284. This is the document where LANL states its preference to leave the one million cubic meters of radioactive and hazardous waste buried in place at the Lab at Area G.
The full document is available at LANL’s Electronic Reading Room site (download doc)
WARNING It is 153MB! (If you have trouble downloading the full document from the LANL site, which is often the case, please get in touch with us at email@example.com
To help make things a bit more accessible and manageable, NukeWatch is providing outtakes from the Area G Corrective Measures Evaluation Report:
This is the list of extensions to requirements of the Consent Order requested by LANL and approved or denied by the NM Environment Department.
The agreement of the Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to address the highest risk above-ground transuranic waste currently in Technical Area 54 at LANL.
This revised Consent Order will create serious barriers to achieving cleanup, limits public participation opportunities, undermines enforceability by the Environment Department, puts the Department of Energy (DOE) in the driver’s seat, and lacks a final milestone compliance date. The 2016 Consent Order is potentially a giant step backward in achieving genuine, comprehensive cleanup at LANL.
The 2005 consent order was LANL’s agreement for “fence-to-fence” cleanup of Cold War-era legacy waste by December 2015. Issued pursuant to the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act, the Consent Order set the requirements for a comprehensive investigation of environmental contamination and provides for the identification of cleanup alternatives and the implementation of cleanup measures. (NMED, DOE, UC Regents)