Santa Fe, NM – In an important win for genuine cleanup at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has rejected the Lab’s plans for so-called cleanup through “cap and cover.” LANL’s plan would leave existing radioactive and toxic wastes uncharacterized and forever buried in unlined pits and trenches as a permanent threat to groundwater. At issue is remediation of the Lab’s “Material Disposal Area C” waste dump that has 7 pits and 108 shafts of radioactive and toxic wastes. Area C is located in the heart of nuclear weapons production at LANL, contiguous to the Lab’s main plutonium facility which is expanding production of plutonium “pit” bomb cores.
In a September 7, 2023 “Public Notice of Statement of Basis,” the Environment Department ruled:
“For maximum protection of human health and the environment and to ensure that the drinking water resource can be conservatively protected, NMED has determined that the selected [cleanup] remedy for MDA C must consist of waste excavation, characterization, and appropriate disposal of the buried waste… Excavation will ensure that the source of contamination at MDA C is removed…”
A new book investigates the toxic legacy of Hanford, the Washington state facility that produced plutonium for nuclear weapons.
“Bechtel is a privately owned corporation and we’re spending billions of dollars paying this company to not get the job done. It’s a big mess.”
The most polluted place in the United States — perhaps the world — is one most people don’t even know. Hanford Nuclear Site sits in the flat lands of eastern Washington. The facility — one of three sites that made up the government’s covert Manhattan Project — produced plutonium for Fat Man, the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki during World War II. And it continued producing plutonium for weapons for decades after the war, helping to fuel the Cold War nuclear arms race.
Today Hanford — home to 56 million gallons of nuclear waste, leaking storage tanks, and contaminated soil — is an environmental disaster and a catastrophe-in-waiting.
It’s “the costliest environmental remediation project the world has ever seen and, arguably, the most contaminated place on the entire planet,” writes journalist Joshua Frank in the new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America.
It’s also shrouded in secrecy.
Frank has worked to change that, beginning with a series of blockbuster investigations published in Seattle Weekly a decade ago. Atomic Days offers an even fuller picture of the ecological threats posed by Hanford and its failed remediation.
The Revelator spoke with him about the environmental consequences, the botched cleanup operation, and what comes next.
Why is the most polluted place in the country so little known?
Of the three waves of colonization New Mexico has undergone — Spanish, American and nuclear — the latter is the least explored. And for author Myrriah Gómez, there were personal reasons to reveal the truth about how “nuclear colonization” has altered the state’s past and continues to shape its future.
Gómez, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, is the author of “Nuclear Nuevo México,” a book that explores the history of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the fundamental tension of living in its shadow. Its publication this month by the University of Arizona Press couldn’t be timelier: Los Alamos is currently preparing to build plutonium “pits” that act as triggers in nuclear weapons, putting the lab front and center in an ongoing national debate about nuclear impacts.
“If Spanish colonialism brought Spanish colonizers and U.S. colonialism brought American colonizers,” as Gómez writes in her book, “then nuclear colonialism brought nuclear colonizers, scientists, military personnel, atomic bomb testing, and nuclear waste among them.”
NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said the State wanted a permit with stronger regulations moving forward, to better protect people and the environment from the impacts of nuclear waste disposal.
“It will be more stringent, full stop,” Kenney said. “The conditions were adding to it are designed to add more accountability to the whole complex that are sending waste to WIPP.”
Tougher rules for a nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad could be on the way as New Mexico officials sought “more stringent” regulations as the federal government sought to renew its permit with the state for the facility.
The State sought new requirements to prioritize nuclear waste from within New Mexico for disposal, called for an accounting of all of the waste planned for disposal in the next decade and regular updates on federal efforts to find the location for a new repository as conditions of the permit.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy which holds a permit with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) that must be updated every 10 years.
The facility sees transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste from DOE facilities around the country disposed of via burial in an underground salt formation about 2,000 feet beneath the surface.
“They make it sound like they’re helping us and protecting our children and they’re doing the opposite,” said Melissa Bumstead of West Hills, founder of Parents Against Santa Susana Field Lab.
Bumstead’s daughter Gracie developed a rare cancer at age four. “This agreement is going backwards. It’s putting our kids at risk, we’re not safer,” says Bumstead.
In a statement to the I-Team, Boeing said the agreement “provides a clear, accelerated path forward” for the cleanup of SSFL, and calls it “a win for California.”
The state on Monday announced an agreement with the Boeing Corporation to clean up a large part of one of California’s most contaminated sites–the Santa Susana Field Lab (SSFL)–located in the hills above the San Fernando and Simi Valleys.
In a 2015 investigation called “LA’s Nuclear Secret,” the NBC4 I-Team exposed how radioactive and chemical contamination from the Field Lab was spilling into nearby neighborhoods, where there were dozens of childhood cancer cases.
SSFL was the site of a 1959 partial nuclear meltdown and then decades of rocket tests, all of which left a stew of radioactive and toxic chemicals in the ground. Boeing now owns the majority of SSFL.
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.
THE Associated Press (AP) this week reported that a barrage of North Korean missiles fired from both the ground and fighter jets splashed down on the waters off the peninsular’s east coast on Tuesday. AP further reports that North Korea also launched several Sukhoi-class fighter jets that fired an unspecified number of air-to-surface missiles toward the North’s eastern waters. According to a South Korean defence official, North Korea seems to be resuming its military drills that it had scaled back due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. This, consequently, pushing back the deadlocked denuclearisation negotiations fostered by the United Nations.
“Researchers from Northern Arizona University (NAU) found extensive plutonium “hot” particles in soil near the former Rocky Flats nuclear site. Particles this size can be inhaled and lodged in lung tissue, increasing risk of radioactive exposure from inhalation.”
DENVER (KDVR) – Researchers Michael Ketterer and Scott Szechenyi from (NAU) concluded, “These particles are found to be pervasive in non-US Government land east of Rocky Flats, and it is reasonable to believe that ongoing wind transport is continuing to spread the contamination across open space used by the public, and toward residential areas.”
Surface soil was collected from the Jefferson County right-of-way property immediately west of Indiana Street in 2019.
“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.
“I find it just astonishing that they would do that in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. How the NRC can look themselves in the mirror to propose massive deregulation and do it in the midst of the pandemic, I find it just ethically shocking.” — Dan Hirsch, former director of the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy
Scientists and advocates are raising concerns about a proposed relaxation on regulations for disposing of nuclear waste, saying that the government should halt the proposal as the scientific community focuses on the coronavirus.
A March 6 Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) proposal would allow for the disposal of some nuclear waste in municipal landfills, rather than a licensed facility.
Advocates say the proposal could put public health at risk, pushing the NRC to give the public more time to weigh in.
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.