|"Forget the Rest" blog|
For immediate release 11/12/13
Santa Fe Mayor’s Los Alamos “cleanup” proposal is empty posturing, greenwashing for renewed warhead production, charges New Mexico policy group
Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200 or 505-577-8563
Albuquerque – At the November 7 meeting of the Regional Coalition of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Communities (RCLC), Santa Fe Mayor David Coss, in his role as RCLC Chairman, presented a draft City of Santa Fe resolution (press release here, draft resolution # 2013 here) which calls for characterization and potential removal of all waste buried at LANL’s Area G nuclear and chemical dump site.
Study Group Director Greg Mello: “This resolution will have zero effect in Washington. Its danger is that it pretends to reconcile diametrically opposing visions for the future of Santa Fe, one that is supportive of weapons of mass destruction and threats of annihilation – a dark and nihilistic vision of secrecy, inequality, and domination – and one that is based on Eros and the protection of life. LANL just can’t be “cleaned up” while yet embracing the Bomb.
“Which vision will define the region? A choice has to be made and will be made, by the City and by the Mayor, consciously or unconsciously. We can’t have both visions. Will our communities be LANL’s, as the very name of the Coalition implies? Or will the humanitarian and biophilic love of St. Francis, the City’s namesake, be closer to the vision we steer by? What star will guide Santa Fe in the difficult decades ahead? More simply: where will our young people work? What will inspire them?
“This resolution should be withdrawn. Honestly, it can’t be fixed until the underlying conflicts of interest are fixed. Limited as we are in many ways, we will help however we can.”
The Mayor’s proposal, both in what it says and what it does not say, is best understood with some basic background.
Considerable Area G background can be found here. The most recent developments aren’t shown.
RCLC is a public/private corporate lobbying group organized by the for-profit Los Alamos National Security, LLC (LANS), which operates LANL for the Department of Energy (DOE), and by Los Alamos County.
LANS is a private partnership of Bechtel National, the University of California, Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services, and URS Energy and Construction, which acquired original LANS partner Washington Group International. (For background on LANS and its milieu see: “About the LANS Partners” and "Competition - or Collusion? Privatization and Crony Capitalism in the Nuclear Weapons Complex: Some Questions from New Mexico.”)
As incoming RCLC Executive Director Darien Cabral said last week, RCLC lobbies for increased LANS funding. “The focus has been on additional funding, both for the laboratory and for the cleanup [part of the laboratory’s budget].” At one of the first RCLC meetings Los Alamos County Commissioner Mike Wheeler explained that RCLC is "a LANL [i.e. LANS] advocacy group," set up "so the Laboratory can do what it needs to do." RCLC was explicitly set up to overcome local citizen opposition to LANS programs, particularly nuclear weapons and the LANS plutonium mission, especially the then-planned Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF). (See a 2010 expose by Wren Abbott here and update here; more history and insider comments here; also see “Coalition Presses DC for Dollars”.)
About 57% of LANS’ workload is nuclear weapons design, maintenance, and manufacturing, which is part of the roughly 80% or more of LANS national security work. Cleanup – most of which is not actual cleanup but study and overhead – comprises about 8% of LANS’ annual budget, about $186 million (M) lately. Percentages have not changed much since this July 2012 briefing or this February 2013 budget request.
DOE’s nuclear weapons plans involve a tremendous expansion of budget and mission, unprecedented since the Cold War, including at LANL. See also here. LANS, with the other nuclear weapons laboratories, hopes to augment their nuclear weapons and related nuclear security funding with additional military, intelligence, and “homeland security” funding especially, as the anonymous source “Dienekes” has told us. RCLC or any other advocacy for LANS funding means mostly advocacy for these “national security” missions, as they comprise the bulk of LANL’s missions.
Under the present Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 Continuing Resolution (CR), DOE’s cleanup funding plan for LANL provides an annualized funding level of approximately $173 M, compared with a request of approximately $216 M, according to the November 8, 2013 edition of the Nuclear Weapons Monitor, an authoritative trade publication, citing recently-released DOE figures for each site. Presumably this $173 M is prior to the roughly 8% sequestration that will be applied to all national security accounts in January in the absence of new appropriations legislation, which would lower available LANL cleanup funds to the range of $160 M in the same way as nuclear warhead budgets would also be cut.
RCLC is funded by several local governments and pueblos, with more than 90% of its budget coming from Los Alamos County at last ken, although some of this may be DOE grants passed through the County. There was a $100,000 DOE grant to RCLC (through the New Mexico Environment Department) in 2012.
Los Alamos County estimates (p. 21) it will receive an estimated $43 M in gross receipts tax (GRT) income this year, the bulk of which comes from LANS and other DOE contractors and subcontractors. After rising to $57 M in 2011 as the CMRR-NF project and other LANL spending increased, the County’s GRT income shrank by 11% in 2012 and is expected to shrink a further 17% in 2013, as a result of lower spending at LANL.
Area G is one of about two dozen remaining Material Disposal Areas (MDAs) remaining at LANL. MDAs B and P have been entirely removed; others may have also been removed. Area G, some 63 acres is size, is the largest nuclear and chemical waste disposal site at LANL and the only one still in use, although other dumps are planned for the future. Area G is currently used to dispose of low-level nuclear waste (LLW), some of which is very radioactive, and, possibly PCB wastes, if Area G is still permitted for this practice under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and the practice is still continuing.
To take one of these other MDAs as an illustrative example, MDA C is the second-largest LANL MDA. MDA C contains over 3 million cubic feet of shallow-buried nuclear and chemical waste including transuranic (TRU) waste, and has been already re-covered once with clean fill because of plutonium releases from the pits.
DOE has never announced any intent to halt disposal of nuclear waste in unlined pits at LANL, regardless of the fate of Area G. The 1999 Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement (SWEIS) listed four additional waste disposal expansion areas. The 2008 SWEIS endorsed two of these expansion areas as sufficient for the time being – both, like Area G, on Mesita del Buey (see pp. 5-140 and 5-227, here). The FY2011 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP) issued in May of 2010 showed disposal pits in yet a different location, in a proposed LANL “Consolidated Waste Complex” not far from the planned CMRR-NF, MDA C, and the two large new proposed new waste handling facilities, the Transuranic Waste Facility (TRU Waste Facility) and the Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility (RLWTF) (see map on p. 28 of FY11 SSMP Annex D, here).
In April 2012, LANL’s FY 2011 Area G annual report noted that:
Since publishing the first publicly-available map of LANL contaminated areas 21 years ago (at LANL’s Bradbury Museum), the Los Alamos Study Group has consistently requested full cleanup of LANL’s MDAs and other contaminated sites. A compendium of news articles (print media only) regarding Area G and this organization’s involvement in the issue from 1992 to 2006 can be found here.
My own (Greg Mello’s) involvement with the site began in June of 1984, when I led the New Mexico Environment Department’s (NMED’s) Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) enforcement at LANL and designed the first proposed environmental monitoring network for the MDAs on Mesita del Buey. This was the first environmental regulation of LANL of any kind and the genesis of the LANL cleanup program. The Anaya administration failed to require a disposal permit for Area G in 1985, a process which very likely would have closed the site, due to extensive chemical contamination within and below it. The waste disposal “units” – unlined pits and shafts – were obviously not containing all the wastes.
Throughout the 1990s this organization worked for closure of Area G and cleanup in many ways, for example convening a broad regional coalition which led to the NMED order to exhume tens of thousands of buried TRU drums from the site, some of which were breached. These drums were overpacked as necessary and stored in tents on-site and are gradually being shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). About 79% of the plutonium in waste shipped to WIPP over the past 15 years has however been newly-generated wastes (217 kg in new “discards to waste” out of 275 kg disposed at WIPP over the same period; pp. 12 and 17 here).
In 2001 this organization convened 27 organizations calling for the cessation of nuclear waste disposal at Area G and formal closure of the site, the necessary prelude to cleanup both logically and legally. In 2003 this organization concluded a petition campaign involving more than 3,000 citizens, each of whom paid $3 to deliver a formal petition under RCRA to the Governor for hearings in a form – a re-labeled food can, subsequently taken to a food bank – that also emphasized the inappropriate social and political priorities embodied in Area G waste disposal and cleanup failure. Santa Fe antinuclear groups declined to be involved.
In 2005 this organization brought together 118 New Mexico organizations, 326 New Mexico businesses, 57 religious organizations and coalitions, 102 national & international organizations, and the City of Santa Fe to request, along with other important provisions, a halt to disposal of nuclear waste at LANL. Again, none of the anti-nuclear groups in Santa Fe were willing to join this large coalition which among other goals stigmatized nuclear waste disposal at LANL. As soon became apparent, some of these close-knit organizations actually wanted to increase waste-generating nuclear programs at LANL, not decrease them, as part of a scheme to consolidate all nuclear warhead work in New Mexico, discussed further below.
The resolution: comments by the Los Alamos Study Group
1. Superficially, the resolution is appealing.
The resolution appears on its face to be straightforward. But ideally, and unless careful review suggests otherwise, all the waste at all of LANL’s MDAs, including but not limited to Area G, should be disinterred, sorted, converted as necessary into more compact and stable forms for transportation and reburial in more environmentally benign ways, at LANL and elsewhere as appropriate.
In my opinion, Area G is located in the best possible location at LANL for waste disposal, just as the U.S. Geological Survey advised when Area G was first opened. The other MDAs are situated worse.
Given LANL’s geology and hydrology, in my (Greg Mello’s) professional opinion, none of LANL’s MDAs could ever be realistically proposed today for nuclear waste disposal, and certainly none could be permitted either as low-level nuclear waste disposal sites by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) or as chemical waste disposal sites under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Previous senior officials at NMED have gone further in my presence, stating that LANL’s MDAs could never be permitted even for even sanitary waste disposal, an opinion with which I concur. But there they are, and disposal continues.
The resolution may exaggerate the groundwater benefits of cleanup. For a qualitative appreciation of the situation from 2004 see “How to Clean Up Los Alamos.”
As noted in that précis, in my opinion much if not most LANL cleanup funds provided to date have been squandered on useless studies, excessive overhead and salaries both at LANL and at many of its subcontractors, and by a lack of mission clarity and focus. I have in the past designed, regulated and executed cleanups for NMED and in private industry. I always found LANL’s costs to be extreme and its management appalling. No doubt there are exceptions.
Overall, the present LANL cleanup is proceeding under a 2004 Consent Order which removed some then-standing legal obligations under the strong and relatively prescriptive RCRA permitting regulations requiring cleanup upon closure. Performance under a permit is subject to citizen suit as well as NMED enforcement; NMED waived that right on behalf of citizens. NMED also promised never to sue DOE to resolve future disputes that might arise in implementing the Order or any time after.
This proposed (non-binding) resolution thus asks, in effect, for a new DOE commitment to clean up a small part of LANL, partially replacing what was bargained away by NMED and the Richardson Administration in 2004. Local antinuclear groups, but not the Los Alamos Study Group, applauded that 2004 bargain.
Congressional appropriations committee staff have recently noted to us that there is no binding cleanup agreement at LANL with clear and objective requirements, making it more difficult for LANL to compete for limited cleanup funds. This problem, these staff said to us, limited the effectiveness of RCLC lobbying.
The resolution’s estimated Area G cleanup price tag of $6 billion is highly speculative and depends greatly on management issues which are not addressed in the resolution.
For better and for worse, these funds would come from national security budget functions (the “050” account) and would need to be provided in the Energy and Water Development appropriations bills in the House and the Senate. Under the Budget Control Act (BCA), Area G clean up competes broadly with all military functions under the security sequestration “cap” until those limits are replaced by other legislation, if they are. More narrowly, Area G cleanup would compete with all other DOE site cleanups as well as with renewable energy, low-income heating assistance, nuclear warheads, water development and flood control, DOE science, and all the other titles and programs funded in Energy and Water appropriations bills.
2. If this narrowly-scoped resolution had merit, it could be greatly improved with a modest expansion of scope and by certain amendments.
There is no real need for the proposed pilot study. The cleanup of MDA B, which has the general size and geometry of most Area G pits, serves as an excellent pilot study, as do other cleanups elsewhere around the country (e.g. McClellan AFB in Sacramento, CA). Further delay, for the purposes of a pilot study, would only drive up costs and lower the probability of successful completion. The “can’t do” attitude at LANL that milks every mission for corporate dollars is the real problem and every potential project must be designed to overcome this deplorable tendency.
The proposed cleanup schedule (“twenty years or more”) is excessive and would be more costly than shorter cleanups, if it even could be sustained. Considerations of “dark inflation” and “the perfect storm” apply.
The job creation potential of this cleanup is exaggerated. A two-decade schedule could not employ “hundreds” of people. One hundred people is a better number. An accelerated schedule would employ more. In either case they would not all be people who live in the region today.
A 2010 Los Alamos Study Group study of job creation under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) by Dr. Darwin BondGraham (“Nuclear and Military Maldistribution and Inefficient Use of Recovery Act Funds in New Mexico,” June 2010, press release here), using self-reported figures from DOE, found that ARRA spending at LANL created about one job per $2.1 M spent. Job creation efficiency at LANL was less than 10% that of ARRA spending in poor parts of NM. Therefore the Keynesian benefits of this proposed cleanup will be small without massive management reforms and built-in economic development requirements that would have political legs only if they would lead to greater federal economies as well. (See also: “Does Los Alamos National Lab help or hurt the New Mexico economy?”). The nature of management reforms required is beyond the scope of these comments.
As written, this resolution would not have a significant positive economic effect on the region, even if it were realistic.
Active drainage systems for reinterred wastes, as described in the resolution, do not address the main long-term hazards as I see them, which are not strictly hydrological, i.e. they come via animals, plants, and humans. Sub-waste drainage systems will fail.
There are a few other technical suggestions that could be made. The Study Group briefed these suggestions to DOE some years ago. We include them here to indicate some of the real scope of this project, both as to what it must include to be practical and what it might include to be most beneficial.
As noted above, the resolution does not address many other environmentally-damaging MDAs, and is silent about continued disposal. The travesty of excavating waste at one site only to bury much of it nearby again in nearly the same way, as is being done at LANL today, should end. There is little point in cleaning up the dry end of Mesita del Buey while continuing to dispose of waste in adjacent areas and, as is now planned, in wetter zones of the same mesa. Why would such an idea be politically viable? Congress will not approve even a pilot study which is that absurd.
Ongoing nuclear waste generation at LANL is primarily produced by the warhead programs which the RCLC, Mayor Coss at its helm, seeks to expand, among other LANL programs.
The mayor is not alone in this silence and support. One Santa Fe “anti-nuclear” group (Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, a project of the Southwest Research and Information Center) has also repeatedly sought to expand nuclear waste generating programs and facilities at LANL, for example playing an essential role in the “Nuclear Weapons Complex Consolidation Network” (See these comments on this report). Nuclear Watch has advocated not just expansion of plutonium pit production infrastructure at various crucial times over the past decade but also, in that report and other activities, consolidation of the nation’s warhead tritium work as well as the entire production mission of the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge at LANL, activities which would dramatically increase nuclear waste generation and disposal.
The long and short of it is that if this cleanup is truly to be done, it should be done in a very smart and lean way, which is not how DOE and its contractors generally do things. Merely calling for characterization, exhumation, and possible reburial and “recycling” (what does this mean?) of all the radioactive and chemical waste at Area G will not find many adherents – nor should it.
3. The resolution is however not realistic or serious and is being advanced for propaganda purposes primarily, without enough thought. It’s a throwaway proposal that dramatically narrows, to the point of absurdity, the economic, social, and environmental issues facing Santa Fe vis-à-vis LANL.
First of all, the likelihood of DOE prioritizing, and Congress approving, a new multi-billion-dollar cleanup liability at LANL at this point in history (and in DOE cleanup history, with far more serious problems on the shores of the Columbia River at Hanford and indeed at many other DOE sites), must be considered quite remote. So this is mostly a throwaway proposal which serves other purposes, to be described shortly.
It must be said that for twenty years this organization has been warning that DOE cleanup funding would eventually, and not too distantly, decline. We begged again and again for more efficient use of the funds available, but this was never really a LANL, DOE, NMED, or congressional priority. Pork was. There was almost no oversight oriented toward efficiency of cleanup – toward getting truly useful things done. For more than a decade, LANL chose managers for its cleanup program who had zero prior environmental or cleanup experience.
Even today, congressional staff tell us that RCLC representatives who come to them are arrogantly asking for “more money” as if it was their due – money, not objective environmental outcomes – which offends these committees. These emissaries are however merely relaying LANL culture.
It would be more fiscally responsible and arguably more realistic if this resolution included an 050 account funding source within the Energy and Water accounts – an offset. The obvious candidate, which was understood in prior City resolutions but not this one, is the DOE nuclear weapons program, which makes most of the waste. To include such a provision in this resolution would present a conflict of interest for the City and for the Mayor, given the City’s membership and the Mayor’s leadership of RCLC.
Martin Luther King said,
What we see in this resolution is more of just that same procrastination, updated as it were, not leadership. Two decades ago, or even one decade ago, were better times to call for cleanup merely. Our overall environmental and economic situation, and the federal fiscal situation, have grown far more dire since then, precisely because we – the country and the state – did not change our priorities. It’s a little late now to be calling for just cleanup, as if this was 1989 and the Cold War just ending, with all the fat years up to 2008 before us. Haven’t we learned things since then?
What we see now in this resolution, in today’s starker light, are the blanks where the missing sections regarding the major issues at LANL, the major issues for Santa Fe, for the environment and for economic development should be. We hear silence. And in that silence we detect a political drift to the right – for example, in comparison with past City resolutions (see below). This silence is exemplified and led by Mayor Coss’ role promoting the interests of Bechtel and the other LANS partner corporations.
There is silence about what LANL actually does to make this waste, about whether that work can ever harmonize with the values of our civilization or with the humanitarian principles of international law, with binding U.S. disarmament obligations, with our pressing environmental needs and our aspirations for society, or with even the name of Santa Fe.
There is silence about how all this nuclear waste is connected with the threat of universal annihilation which LANL played a central role in bringing into the world and still assiduously cultivates as a threat, which threat, in the eyes of LANL’s federal and corporate management, “must” be made credible.
There is silence about the continuing fountain of new radioactive waste at LANL, where it comes from, and how all of this affects Santa Fe and its prospects.
This resolution is far less credible than the efforts of DOE and LANL’s leaders, and of Mayor Coss, to obtain more money for nuclear warhead work, which is what RCLC does, spending a great deal of the Mayor’s time and some of the City’s money in doing so. When push comes to shove, and it has, warheads trump cleanup at LANL, so Mayor Coss should not straddle the fence. What the Mayor believes or says he is doing is not important. It is the fact of RCLC membership and leadership that is important.
Even if RCLC wasn’t lobbying for LANL money in general (which it is), the message clearly received by congressional committees is that local leaders want LANL funding protected, full stop. Requests for cleanup are more likely payable in warhead dollars. Both come through the same bill and the same sequestered 050 account. However sincere it may seem locally, in the world of pork-barrel politics a local resolution asking for $6 billion for a local site from Congress is a resolution asking for $6 billion for a local site from Congress. “Cleanup” – which at LANL has always been a program and a funding stream more than an activity of the same name even in the best case – is a code, a euphemism, dressed up in this case for local liberal consumption.
A resolution like this – which has no cost to the City and no political risk for the Mayor, a sure measure of merit and sincerity – is a way to provide false comfort to many people who are vaguely uncomfortable with the idea of nuclear waste, many of whom hold superstitious ideas of its potency. These ideas, though widely trumpeted in some circles, are often just as faulty as the benign assurances perennially provided by the nuclear priesthood. Personal purity is an industry in Santa Fe. This resolution assimilates these vague and displaced concerns to corporate agendas, and to the agenda of Mayor Coss’ and his political party, which seeks campaign contributions and votes from the same corporate personnel, and also to the agenda of RCLC, which is also simply asking for money. Everybody it seems wants taxpayer money for LANL, full stop. The bottom line is the bottom line.
Also well-served by such a narrow agenda are the material interests of several antinuclear nonprofits in Santa Fe, which, like the RCLC are substantially funded by the DOE to ask for more cleanup spending, in so many words.
Many of these nonprofits’ other major funders have led them to seek dramatic consolidation of waste-generating nuclear warhead work at LANL as noted above, or else to remain silent and knowing bystanders.
Most U.S. arms control foundations and organizations also prefer a narrow agenda that protects nuclear corporate interests, although they may not fully realize that. To many of these potent actors, a growing U.S. nuclear warhead program has been seen as a political requirement for arms treaty ratification and therefore a constant political desideratum. Major funders like the San Francisco-based Ploughshares Fund gave the Obama Administration essentially a blank check for nuclear weapons modernization in 2010, as votes were being lined up for New START ratification. Ploughshares grantees echoed these supportive views, or else remained silent. Most of these funders and organizations are strongly tied to Democratic Party politicians and interests in all the usual ways, again dramatically limiting the scope of discourse and bending it to harmonize with Party donors and friends.
What all this amounts to is a knot of mutual financial interest that collapses concern about nuclear weapons and what they mean for our society down to the lowest common denominator of electoral, corporate, and private interests. This is not an accidental configuration but rather has been worked out and honed through literally hundreds of strategy meetings and conferences of political strategists, donors, and grantees and their respective networks over many years. It has been proven to be politically barren as far as nuclear policy is concerned.
It is out of this standard “oldthink” that the present resolution, with its thundering silences about the major choices before us, has emerged.
The City’s participation in the RCLC is at odds with prior City resolutions; the Mayor’s participation in RCLC is a conflict of interest with the expressed wishes and values of the Governing Body.
Mayor Coss, by virtue of his office, is a member of Mayors for Peace, an organization devoted to the abolition of nuclear weapons, the previous Mayor Larry Delgado having committed the City to that organization and its mission and covenant in February of 2005. The mission reads as follows.
Such an identity is wholly supportive of Santa Fe’s international reputation and status. It is not however compatible with the mission of RCLC.
Our files, which I doubt are complete, contain a number of City of Santa Fe resolutions on Los Alamos missions, programs, and environmental problems, including No. 1994-49 (“Supporting an Environmental Impact Study and Analysis of Alternatives at Los Alamos National Laboratory”), No. 2003-64 (“Objecting to the Location of a Modern Pit Facility in Northern New Mexico and Directing the City Clerk to Inform Federal Authorities of the Objections”), No. 2005-39 (“Supporting Compliance by the United States with the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons”), 2006-104 (“Objecting to the Proposed Expanded Nuclear Weapons Activities, Including Plutonium Pit Production, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Directing the City Clerk to Inform Federal Authorities of the Objections”), and Joint City/County Resolution 2010-91 “(“In Support of a New Environmental Impact Statement for LANL’s Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility [CMRR Project]”).
These resolutions, taken together, comprise a far more potent statement than the present one and they are at odds with the City’s RCLC role.
Resolution No. 2005-39, introduced by councilors Miguel Chavez, David Coss, and Patti Bushee, and passed by the governing body with one dissenting vote on April 13, 2005, is worthy of extensive quotation in this connection:
The long and short of it is that the City of Santa Fe, through its fiscal support of RCLC, is now very much at odds with these expressed purposes and values. Mayor Coss, as RCLC Chairman, is in particular conflict of interest with these official City objectives.
One or the other identity and vision of the future must dominate and in the end take precedence.
The resolution in question, which will have zero effect in Washington, nonetheless pretends to reconcile these diametrically opposing visions of the world. That is its danger.
Will the City exit this Coalition and will the Mayor resign from this corporate promotion group, which takes up an important fraction of his time? Or will the nihilism represented by weapons of mass destruction – the largest mission at LANL and its raison d’etre – come to define and dominate the region, as is implicit the Coalition’s very name?
The answer will have everything to do with the prospects for economic, social, and environmental renewal for Santa Fe and the region. As regional economist William Weida once said, “The primary economic development barrier in northern New Mexico for the last several decades has been misplaced loyalty to the Bomb.”
This resolution should be withdrawn. We would be happy to help with a better one, or help the Mayor and councilors in any other way.