The long path of plutonium: A new map charts contamination at thousands of sites, miles from Los Alamos National Laboratory

Plutonium hotspots appear along tribal lands, hiking trails, city streets and the Rio Grande River, a watchdog group finds

“Nuclear Watch’s driving question, according to Scott Kovac, its operations and research director, concerned a specific pattern of contamination: Had plutonium migrated from LANL dump sites into regional groundwater? The answer, Kovac believes, is yes.”

For years, the public had no clear picture of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s plutonium footprint. Had the ubiquitous plutonium at LANL infiltrated the soil? The water? Had it migrated outside the boundary of the laboratory itself?

A series of maps published by Nuclear Watch New Mexico are beginning to answer these questions and chart the troubling extent of plutonium on the hill. One map is included below, while an interactive version appears on Nuclear Watch New Mexico’s website. The raw data for both comes from Intellus New Mexico, a publicly accessible clearinghouse of some 16 million environmental monitoring records offered in recent decades by LANL, the New Mexico Environment Department and the Department of Energy.

Approximately 58,100 red dots populate each map at 12,730 locations, marking a constellation of points where plutonium — a radioactive element used in nuclear weapons — was found in the groundwater, surface water or soil. What’s alarming is just how far that contamination extends, from Bandelier National Monument to the east and the Santa Fe National Forest to the north, to San Ildefonso tribal lands in the west and the Rio Grande River and Santa Fe County, to the south.

The points, altogether, tell a story about the porous boundary between LANL and its surrounds. So pervasive is the lab’s footprint that plutonium can be found in both trace and notable amounts along hiking trails, near a nursing home, in parks, along major thoroughfares and in the Rio Grande.

Gauging whether or not the levels of plutonium are a health risk is challenging: Many physicians and advocates say no dose of radiation is safe. But when questions about risk arise, one of the few points of reference is the standard used at Rocky Flats in Colorado, where the maximum allowable amount of plutonium in remediated soil was 50 picocuries per gram. Many sites on the Nuclear Watch map have readings below this amount. Colorado’s construction standard, by contrast, is 0.9 picocuries per gram.

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