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LANL makes progress on Area G cleanup, but doubts remain

Posted: Monday, October 10, 2016 11:30 pm | Updated: 6:47 am, Tue Oct 11, 2016.

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

For more than 70 years, Los Alamos National Laboratory dug thousands of deep and shallow graves across mesas and filled them with the radioactive waste, chemicals and solvents used to make nuclear weapons.

Workers disposed of the waste in these unlined pits before the widespread contamination that would follow was fully understood or governed by environmental laws. Radioactive particles that live longer than some civilizations mixed freely with the red soil.

Environmental groups and laboratory watchdogs for decades have fought with local and national leaders to suspend the continued toxic waste disposal on-site at Los Alamos. This battle has been most fiercely fought over the 63-acre swath referred to as Technical Area 54, or Material Disposal Area G.

It is the largest remaining disposal site at the lab, where underground pits dating to the 1950s have resulted in a vapor plume of volatile organic compounds and plutonium-239 has been documented at a depth of 200 feet, creeping toward the regional aquifer below.

At last, though, a turnabout in lab practices may occur. Last week, three sentences in a nearly 300-page report signaled that no new low-level waste would be disposed of on-site at Area G after October 2017.

The 2015 Annual Site Environmental Report states that the lab will minimize the creation of low-level radiological waste and mixed low-level waste, and “dispose of all newly generated waste off-site.” It would go to storage centers in Nevada, Utah and Texas.

The report says that all existing low-level waste will be disposed of at the “remaining space at Area G” and “no new, on-site disposal capacity will be developed.”

Nuclear watchdogs initially applauded this decision, but it comes with several caveats. One is how the lab will deal with the site once disposal work concludes, and if closing the site will instead open the door for new disposal areas at the lab.

Future of Area G waste

Area G opened in 1957 and since is estimated to have amassed 11 million cubic feet (311,400 cubic meters) of toxic and radioactive waste from weapons production during the Manhattan Project and the Cold War, according to data from the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group that monitors the lab. This is about 1.5 million 55-gallon barrels of waste, enough to fill 163 Olympic-size swimming pools.

The lab, though, says the amount of waste is much lower. It cites 338,000 cubic feet of transuranic waste accumulated before the lab opened dropping by more than 105,000 cubic feet in the first decade of shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. A third of this waste, the agency says, is underground.

An official at the lab confirmed that Area G was currently not accepting new transuranic waste, defined as waste contaminated with high-level radioactive particles, including plutonium and americium.

At issue now is low-level waste that has been contaminated with radiation and is not categorized as intermediate-, high- or transuranic-level nuclear waste or spent nuclear fuel. But it can range “from just above background levels [of radiation] found in nature to very highly radioactive in certain cases such as parts from inside the reactor vessel in a nuclear power plant,” according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Lab officials said last week that some of the low-level waste at Area G will be buried, but they could not say with certainty if the lab would stop accepting low-level waste permanently in 2017, as the report suggests.

Steven Horak, a spokesman for the Department of Energy, said “the remaining operational life of this facility [Area G] has yet to be established by [the Department of Energy] and [the National Nuclear Security Administration]. The amount of waste that will remain at Area G is still being evaluated.”

“Operating life,” he said, indicates, “the anticipated time that the facility will be conducting operations.” He could not specify if this includes continued new waste disposal.

The Los Alamos Study Group and tribal and community members have been petitioning the state to close Area G since 1985. In 2001, the group delivered 1,000 cans of mock nuclear waste to then-Gov. Gary Johnson, saying it was “time that LANL joined the 21st century, obeyed the law and closed this site.”

They said that, because the disposal site was established before most environmental regulations, it operated without abiding by regulations, including the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. It is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s law for hazardous-waste management “from cradle to grave.”

The lab maintains that it is fully compliant with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, as well as permits governing air and water quality. Of nearly 1,100 water samples taken in 2015, just two exceeded water quality standards..

Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group,, said last week that “the decision by LANL and [the Department of Energy] to halt dumping on the Plateau [in 2017] is the culmination of two and half decades of effort by citizen groups, tribes, and the LANL earth scientists who have frankly admitted to us through the years that Area G should be closed.”

But, he added: “In some ways it is too late. … Area G will always be contaminated.”

Skeptics remain

Watchdog groups suggested the decision was based on the fact that Area G is nearing capacity. The last open trench, pit 38, which spans more than 100 meters, is the only area with space to accept new waste.

“The pit is going to be full,” said Scott Kovac, research director for Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “It is not like they are just stopping out of the goodness of their own heart.”

The contamination left at the lab is a monumental problem that will cost some $3.8 billion to clean up, according to the U.S. government. A draft report detailing the scope of the problem at 17 lab sites was released in August, and says Area G alone would require $740 million for decontamination expected to take more than two decades.

Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said these estimates were based on false assumptions. “I will call it willful misrepresentation, ignoring 90 percent of the waste that is there,” he said.

Coghlan estimates that the full scope of waste is 30 times higher than the numbers provided by the lab.

No new space is being developed at Area G, according to the report, but another site is near completion and will accept all new transuranic waste generated through plutonium pit production at Plutonium Facility 4. The report says this waste will not remain at the site longer than 12 months.

This time frame is complicated by reliance on the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the only permanent storage facility for transuranic waste. The plant has been shuttered since a radiation leak in 2014.

In August, Los Alamos director Charles McMillan said the work to restart plutonium pit production is 95 percent operational. This work would generate an increasing number of softball-size fission triggers for nuclear weapons in coming decades — as many as 80 per year by 2030.

This waste will go to the new Transuranic Waste Facility, a nine-building structure near the plutonium facility with the capacity to hold more than 1,240 drums of waste at a time, according to Toni Chiri of the National Nuclear Security Administration. This structure could hold all transuranic waste generated by the lab.

But with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant still closed — and plans underway to generate more plutonium-tainted waste through pit production and demolish many aging, contaminated buildings this year — the lab’s ability to end on-site disposal of low-level waste in a year may be a challenge.

“Are [they] going to go back on their word” as soon as these demolition projects get underway? Mello asked. “That’s a question. They don’t provide more information there [in the report]. But if they are making that promise, they should be kept to it.”

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