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Feds estimates LANL cleanup at $1 billion less than state

Posted: Thursday, July 28, 2016 11:00 pm | Updated: 11:23 pm, Thu Jul 28, 2016.

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates the cost of cleaning up 70 years of legacy waste from Cold War-era nuclear weapons production at about $1 billion less than estimates provided by state officials earlier this year.

In March, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn said the two decades of soil and water remediation and waste removal would cost at least $4 billion, or $255 million per year.

But Doug Hintze, manager of the Energy Department’s Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office, said this week that an average of $153 million per year, or $2.9 billion through 2035, would be sufficient.

State officials and nuclear watchdog groups disagree.

“DOE’s figure is entirely too optimistic,” said Allison Scott Majure, a spokeswoman for the state Environment Department. “Secretary Flynn has repeatedly advocated for a funding level of $255 million at the site, which will accelerate cleanup of DOE’s legacy waste and associated environmental restoration in and around Los Alamos. Even DOE’s own estimates prove this is justified in light of the remaining scope of the work.”

Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said in a statement that the federal cost estimate is not merely too low but also suggests “that the Lab’s major radioactive and toxic wastes dumps will not be cleaned up.”

The lower price point, he said, indicates the Energy Department plans to “cap and cover” the estimated 200,000 cubic yards of toxic waste at sites atop Los Alamos mesas rather than move it to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad or another secure facility.

The “so-called cleanup … leaves tons of radioactive and toxic wastes in the ground that will permanently threaten Northern New Mexico’s precious water resources,” Coghlan said.

Nuclear Watch New Mexico has been critical of both the Energy Department and the state Environment Department over delays in cleanup at Los Alamos. The organization filed a recent lawsuit against the lab and its federal regulators over an agreement with the state that governs the lab’s cleanup activities.

But Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, another watchdog group, said the disparity between state and federal lab cleanup estimates signals different mindsets and expectations.

While the federal government may be eager to put cleanup responsibilities behind, the state likely would benefit from the increased funding that more rigorous cleanup efforts would bring.

“Los Alamos is always going to be contaminated, and I am not sure that all parties are clear about that,” Mello said.

The lab continues to generate new nuclear waste, he said, citing plans to restart plutonium pit production this year in Los Alamos. “The problem, as it is posed right now, is unending,” Mello said.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.


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