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. LANL is banking on a cap of less than five feet of soil and gravel to protect northern New Mexico from these wastes for a thousand years. But bomb-making plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years and is generally considered dangerous for 100,000 years. Finally, as an internal Lab document concluded, “Future contamination at additional locations is expected over a period of decades to centuries as more of the contaminant inventory reaches the water table.”
The Lab claims that the cap and cover will be protective for 1,000 years. However, Area C is loaded with radioactive transuranic (TRU) wastes, defined as wastes that contain manmade elements heavier than uranium on the periodic table (e.g. plutonium). Therefore, Area C should be required to meet DOE regulations for TRU wastes containment for 10,000 years. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), which was built to dispose of transuranic wastes, meets DOE’s requirement of a reasonable expectation of containment for 10,000 years and is 2,150 feet deep. Area C is 25 feet deep at the deepest and should not be allowed to become a permanent dump for plutonium and other dangerous transuranic bomb-making materials.
Santa Fe, NM – The Biden Administration has finally released budget details for Department of Energy (DOE) programs that clean up Cold War contamination and radioactive and toxic wastes. In January the New Mexico Environment Department sued DOE in order to terminate a 2016 “Consent Order” that subordinated cleanup at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to the budget that DOE wants, which is increased nuclear weapons production. The Biden Administration has responded by increasing proposed cleanup funding at the Lab by 33% from $226 million in FY 2021 to $333.5 million proposed for FY 2022 (which begins October 1, 2021).
“The poor performance at LANL I think is exactly why we sued the Department of Energy because we believe the DOE and contractor are in violation of the Consent Order, we need to correct that and from a policy perspective, the Department of Energy has prioritized over New Mexico, cleanup at Savannah River, cleanup at Idaho National Labs, cleanup at all these other places and that is unacceptable to the state of New Mexico since we are the only state that holds the geologic repository known as WIPP,” – New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney
District 43 Rep. Christine Chandler and New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney on Monday both criticized the Department of Energy’s lack of progress in shipping waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in Carlsbad. Their comments were made during the Legislative Radioactive & Hazardous Materials Committee meeting. Chandler is the vice chair of that committee.
Eletha Trujillo, Bureau Chief of the Hazardous Waste Planning Division at the state Energy, Minerals and National Resources Department, earlier in the meeting noted that there are two groups from LANL that ship waste – the DOE Environmental Management group and the DOE National Security Administration group.
“The DOE NNSA group had some safety violations back in February – the spark incident that occurred with a barrel at Los Alamos and so they have not been able to do any shipments. They do have material, but they’re not able to ship anything because they’re under a safety hold by the NRC. When they complete their plan and they get approval again from the NRC then the NNSA will be able to ship again. We don’t know when that’s going to happen. Typically the NNSA tends to have more safety violations than Environmental Management,” Trujillo said.
She added that EM has shipped their material and does not have enough material for a full load.
“Some elected officials and watchdog groups say the list is another indication that New Mexico is on the back burner when it comes to cleaning up legacy waste. They’re also raising concerns that new waste generated by Los Alamos when it ramps up production of key nuclear warhead components will need to be cleaned up and could further sideline decontamination efforts.”
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – The U.S. Energy Department has rolled out its 2021 priorities for cleaning up tons of toxic waste left behind by decades of bomb-making and nuclear research at scientific installations and defense sites around the country.
The list includes a goal of sending 30 shipments from the birthplace of the atomic bomb — Los Alamos National Laboratory — to the federal government’s underground waste repository in southern New Mexico.
“I’m glad that NMED went to court. If LANL is serious, they should not be spending lots of federal time and resources and lawyers to fight this…They should be trying to see what they can do to come to an agreement with NMED.” — Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste program at the Southwest Research and Information Center
An alleged failure to clean up hazardous and radioactive waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) led the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to take the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to court in hopes of seeing the DOE address its concerns.
In a complaint filed in the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe County, NMED alleged the DOE displayed a “pattern” of failing to meet deadlines and benchmarks for hazardous waste clean-up at the federal nuclear facility in northern New Mexico.
NMED sought to terminate a 2016 consent order, enacted during the past administration, citing a lack of adequate targets and progress in cleaning up waste at the facility.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, February 25, 2021
The New Mexico Environment Department has announced that it is filing a lawsuit against the Department of Energy to terminate a “Consent Order” governing cleanup at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). Nuclear Watch New Mexico, which has fought against that Consent Order ever since it went into effect nearly five years ago, strongly supports and applauds NMED’s decision.
Much to its credit, in 2005 the State of New Mexico successfully compelled DOE to enter into a strong, enforceable Consent Order after years of tough negotiations and lawsuits brought against it by DOE and the University of California (then LANL’s manager). However, at the Lab’s request the anti-regulation Susanna Martinez Administration eviscerated that Consent Order with more than 150 milestone extensions. Further, in a process riddled with conflicts of interest, the Martinez Administration negotiated a revised 2016 Consent Order that subordinated cleanup to the budget that DOE wants instead of having cleanup drive the budget. As a direct result, DOE added $900 million to LANL’s nuclear weapons programs in FY 2021 alone (to a total of $2.9 billion) while proposing to cut cleanup by nearly half to $120 million (fortunately Congress blocked that cut).
The lawsuit notes that Nuclear Watch New Mexico previously filed a lawsuit against the DOE over its non-compliance with the 2016 Consent Order.
Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said in a statement that “What New Mexicans really deserve (is) to have needed cleanup drive funding instead of the budget that DOE wants driving cleanup. We strongly salute the Environment Department for taking legal action against DOE’s scheme of expanding dirty nuclear weapons production over cleanup.”
SANTA FE – The state Environment Department has lost patience with the U.S. Department of Energy over what it says is a “continuing pattern of delay and noncompliance” with the cleanup of hazardous legacy waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory, posing a health risk to people in surrounding communities.
After a dispute resolution process broke down, the New Mexico Environment Department late Wednesday filed a civil lawsuit against the DOE in 1st Judicial District Court in Santa Fe. It claims that DOE has failed to meet objectives identified in compliance orders in 2005 and 2016 and has dragged its feet in cleaning up contamination left behind from decades of bomb-making and nuclear research.
It asks that a court-supervised process be conducted to resolve the issues.
“We’re a state agency, and our patience is long,” Environment Secretary James Kenney said in a phone interview. “But our patience runs out quickly when there’s an inability to meet promises.”
Jay Coghlan, executive director of nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico, agreed that hard deadlines are crucial in making real headway on cleanup.
“The main thing we would want is to have cleanup drive funding instead of a budget that [the Energy Department] wants driving cleanup,” Coghlan said.
State regulators are suing the U.S. Department of Energy for what they say is a failure to adequately clean up legacy waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and they will impose tougher rules for disposing of waste generated at the lab during the Cold War and Manhattan Project.
Critics have bashed the 2016 agreement for waste cleanup — known as a consent order — that was crafted under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, saying it weakened the original 2005 order by eliminating real deadlines and imposing few penalties for slow or deficient work.
The lawsuit, filed in state District Court, seeks to cancel the consent order, fine the Energy Department about $330,000 for not meeting its cleanup obligations and have the court oversee mediation between the two parties for a new waste agreement.
“N3B is going after the low-hanging fruit, cleaning up less than 2,000 cubic yards of contaminated dirt,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “Let’s hear their plan for cleaning up 200,000 cubic yards of radioactive and toxic wastes at Area G that are already migrating towards our irreplaceable groundwater.”
Coghlan said N3B touting this small part of the cleanup smacks of “propaganda to promote the toothless 2016 consent order.”
Los Alamos National Laboratory’s contractor in charge of cleaning up radioactive waste produced during the Cold War and Manhattan Project has completed its first goal under a 2016 agreement.
Newport News Nuclear BWXT, also known as N3B, finished removing almost 1,800 cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris from four sites in Upper Mortandad, Upper Cañada del Buey and Threemile canyons.
Crews packed and shipped the material to a disposal site in Clive, Utah.
“Cleanup of these sites ultimately protects human health by eliminating the likelihood that contamination will reach the water system through stormwater runoff,” Brenda Bowlby, head of N3B’s soil remediation program, said in a statement.
Removing the toxic debris also protects the area’s wildlife, she added.
The cleanup project was one of 17 that N3B aims to do under the 2016 agreement between the U.S. Department of Energy and the state Environment Department.
“The coronavirus pandemic demonstrates why we should get cleanup done once and for all,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “What we do as humans ebbs and flows with history, but the radioactive and toxic wastes that we leave behind last longer than our recorded history. We should be acting now.”
The U.S. government’s efforts to clean up Cold War-era waste from nuclear research and bomb making at federal sites around the country has lumbered along for decades, often at a pace that watchdogs and other critics say threatens public health and the environment.
Now, fallout from the global coronavirus pandemic is resulting in more challenges as the nation’s only underground repository for nuclear waste finished ramping down operations Wednesday to keep workers safe.
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.
Documents & Resources
Notice of Completion of Off-Site Waste Shipment for Final Disposal, Activity 3.3.4, Compliance Plan, Site Treatment Plan, Federal Facility Compliance Order, Los Alamos National Laboratory
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Los Alamos National Laboratory 2019 Annual Site Environmental Report
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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.