Preliminary comments by Los Alamos Study Groupl


"How to clean up Los Alamos"
Preliminary Comments, 9/7/04 draft, Greg Mello

1. Some important basic facts about the environmental situation at Los Alamos

The first step is to achieve some basic clarity about the situation. While I am not fully cognizant of all the currently-available details, these elementary big-picture facts can and should be stressed.

" There is no safe level of contaminants, but there are choices about societal investments.

" The Rio Grande will never be contaminated by Los Alamos above any drinking water standard by groundwater discharge from LANL watersheds, for fundamental, elementary reasons. The risk resulting from contaminants added to the Rio Grande from chronic groundwater discharge at LANL will always be orders of magnitude below the risk from contaminants already in the Rio Grande and in other New Mexico water supplies (e.g. Albuquerque ground water).

" The Rio Grande could be contaminated above drinking water standards by some scenarios involving sudden releases caused by, for example, accident, sabotage, or terrorist act. Another possible scenario is the contamination of land and river as a result of mining of shallowly-buried wastes at LANL, e.g. mining done in pursuit of the fissile materials buried at LANL.

" Wells on the east side of the Rio Grande will never become contaminated above drinking water standards by Los Alamos-caused ground-water pollution.

" The regional aquifer at Los Alamos, where it has become contaminated or where it may be contaminated in the future, can never be cleaned up by any pumping or injection method. That aquifer is too areally extensive and too thick (these two together mean that it has too great a volume), and it is too deep. It will always be much cheaper (by orders of magnitude), to apply cleanup technologies at the wellhead, if ever needed, than several hundred feet deep in the ground.

" There is no danger of massive contamination of the regional aquifer, because there is no mobile body of contamination adequate to cause it. There is some contamination of that aquifer in some places which so far has not risen above any water quality standard in any public water supply well. It may or may not ever do so.

" The simplest, cheapest, and most reliable monitoring wells for contamination of the regional aquifer as it may affect human health now or in the future, are the drinking water wells in that aquifer, which can be monitored closely for trends in contaminants for a tiny fraction of the cost of an adequate system of deep monitoring wells.

" There is no other public purpose for investigation and monitoring of the aquifers at Los Alamos than to protect public health. Since an adequate monitoring system for aquifer contamination is already in place (a consequence of the facts above), the only purpose for any hydrologic investigation at LANL is to inform the active removal of contamination from either the aquifers or the ground above them. Passive contaminant attenuation in the aquifers, i.e. doing nothing, to the extent that approach is chosen, is adequately served by monitoring the existing drinking water wells.

" There is already an extensive body of knowledge about the geology and hydrology of Los Alamos, including about the regional aquifer. As concerns contamination in the regional aquifer, that body of knowledge is more than adequate for the purposes of decision-making regarding any and all actions that might be taken to protect human health.

" While the overall hydrogeology is already known in general terms, it will not be possible, no matter how much money is spent, to produce a finely-detailed, fully-capable model of LANL hydrology that is capable of predicting the transport and fate of contaminants from a given recharge area to a given discharge area to a useful degree of accuracy. Not only is there no need for such a simulacrum, but there are insurmountable technical problems that prevent its completion. One such problem is the fact that the hydrogeology of Los Alamos is very heterogeneous, and the flow in fractured basalt in particular is probably not even always Darcian, i.e. some pathways probably exhibit the kind of flow that occurs in pipes. Other highly permeable zones also exist and are elusive. The location of the highly-permeable features cannot be fully discovered by drilling, since their dimensions are measured in inches or in other cases in feet, and the LANL site is 1.2 billion square feet in size. Statistical methods are merely descriptive. It's far simpler, wiser, and cheaper to remove what contaminants one can, since it is already known which are the most important ones to remove, and the overall risk is dominated by potential future events that take place at the surface anyway, i.e. is not dominated by hydrologic processes. A second trans-scientific problem is posed by the hydrologic properties of fractured vadose zones, for which there is no accomplished theory, let alone predictive capability. The prompt movement of meteoric water to depth in fractures apparently depends sensitively on the surface characteristics of these cracks, among many other factors, which presumably vary from spot to spot and also with other conditions (physical, biological, chemical) in some complicated way. The fractured vadose zone problem has defied clear understanding so far at Yucca Mountain, despite massive federal investment. The upshot of these issues and others is that at LANL, with this "brute-force" approach, one must destroy the mesas in order to "save" them - "saving" being defined merely as knowing about them (or knowing how they used to be prior to drilling all those holes, in some fictitious, idealized sense), not as remediating them. In addition to these two trans-scientific issues, objectively unknowable factors such as climate change also weigh in. Much could be said about the "institutional autism" that characterizes the current bureaucratic approach to the objective world and its other logical, not to mention institutional and political, weaknesses, but these two scientific issues must suffice to provide a glimpse of deeper and more extensive problems.

" It is conceivable that some of the perched intermediate aquifers at Los Alamos could be remediated if this was found to be desirable. This is because the concentration of contaminants in those aquifers is much greater (heuristically, let's say 10 times greater) than in the deeper aquifer, while the volume is much less (heuristically, let's say 10 times less); the depth is also less. This means that if active protection of the regional aquifer is desired (as opposed to passively monitoring), it is much more cost-effective (heuristically, perhaps 100 times more cost-effective, given the two factors mentioned) to focus efforts on the intermediate aquifers, as opposed to the regional aquifer.

" But the shallow alluvial aquifers and the vadose zones above them are in turn contaminated, in some places, to a much greater degree than the associated intermediate aquifers. They are also much more accessible, with drilling costs a factor of, heuristically, 10, 100, or perhaps even 1,000 times less than that for the intermediate aquifer, depending on the type of well emplaced. This means that for the purpose of removing contaminants, as well as for the subservient purpose of investigating contaminants and their associated geohydrology, it is much more cost-effective to focus on these shallow aquifers, vadose zones, and associated materials (some of which are accessible to a variety of removal and treatment technologies) than it is to focus on deeper aquifers. Contaminant removal (and hence investigation, the sole purpose of which should be active remediation, given the above facts) will be, heuristically, perhaps 100 times more cost-effective than in the intermediate aquifers, and hence perhaps 10,000 times more cost effective than in the regional aquifer.

" Generally speaking, by far the greatest mass of contaminants at Los Alamos lies in the Material Disposal Areas (MDAs), which are all fully accessible at the surface, for better and for worse, with technology as simple as a shovel powered by human beings.

" All the contaminants in those MDAs, as well as all the contaminants at the site in general, will eventually be somewhere else. What is not known is the shape of the loss curves for each contaminant from each dump site. These can never be known to any important degree of precision.

" In the long run, the risk and total hazard associated with Los Alamos contamination will be dominated by the contaminants now in the MDAs, and in a very few other known, major contamination sites.

" Some of those contaminants represent proliferation concerns in the quantities present. Many nuclear weapons could be made from wastes now "permanently" buried at LANL in shallow pits, shafts, and collapsed explosive chambers. In some cases, these wastes are quite concentrated in fissile isotopes such as plutonium-239.

" It is not possible to construct an objective, scientific risk assessment for these MDAs and major sites, because some of the most important risk factors cannot be estimated. These involve human will, intention, institutions, and memory, all of which change subject to biological, social, political, epidemiological, climatic, and other events which cannot be predicted with any confidence at all on a scale of decades, let alone centuries or millennia. Human beings are inherently creative and unpredictable; that is what makes them human. Also, while there is disposal information available for the MDAs and other few major sites, the accuracy and completeness of this information is not known. LANL does not know and cannot know what is in those pits and shafts without physical and chemical inspection.

" Investigations that aim to discover movement of wastes from MDA cells into the immediate surrounding vadose zone may be interesting, but they have little or no bearing on estimating long-term risk or hazard from those cells.

" Finally, and in many ways most importantly, the total amount of waste disposed into the environment at Los Alamos is increasing daily at a significant rate. There is at present no plan to halt disposal, but rather there is every intention to continue disposal at Los Alamos indefinitely, at rates which may approximate past disposal rates. and in unlined pits and transient containers (e.g. carbon-steel drums) no different from those used in the past. Disposal of waste increases the long-term hazard proportionately, all other factors being more or less equal.

2. Clarify terms - clean up the language

At the outset, it is important to clean up our language, since public relations practices at LANL and NMED have intentionally blurred it in order to avoid responsibility and hide what is going on, perhaps even from themselves. That is how rule by administration works.
Cleanup is not a bureaucratic program by that name. Here, let's refer to cleanup as real, positive actions taken to remove contaminants from the environment, in contrast to investigation (physical and chemical measurements to gain data to define the extent and nature of contaminants in the environment), monitoring (chemical sampling of contaminants already known to be in the environment), and analysis (manipulation and assessment of data to assist in decisionmaking).
Cleanup is not the same as leaving a body of contaminants in the ground or groundwater; neither does it include adding freshly-produced contaminants to the ground, i.e. pollution. Over the course of the past decade, as in the decades before that, LANL has done more polluting than cleaning up.
Cleanup may or may not be warranted in any given case, depending upon political decisions including, among other factors, considerations of projected medical risk to individuals and aggregate hazard to human and non-human populations as well as religious, economic, and aesthetic criteria.
Risk, hazard and other political considerations apply differently at different times, but must be considered together now and for the foreseeable future, whether or not they are commensurable or even compatible. They must be considered in a cross-cultural and multi-generational context. Reconciling values and interests is an inherently political problem, requiring an evolving political solution. Thus considerations of relative political power, representation (e.g. of other generations as well as the current one), enfranchisement, accountability, etc. are central to the pollution problem and decisions surrounding it. Science, among other paths of knowledge, can inform us. People acting together, i.e. politics, will decide.
Broadly speaking, there are really only two alternatives to cleanup: passive attenuation (thoughtfully waiting, while monitoring, for the combined processes to dilution, adsorption, natural chemical and biological destruction, and radioactive decay to lower contaminant concentrations or total quantities, or both); and prompt or eventual abandonment in place, usually after attempting to retard the movement of contaminants within the environment by means of barriers such as landfill caps, passive groundwater barriers, and other geotechnical engineering projects. There are obviously degrees of care and sub-alternatives in all these categories.
Waste is not stored in landfill cells, as there are no means to inspect it and no means or intent to take it anywhere else. Discarded waste materials not being stored have been disposed and are already in the environment. Such waste can and will migrate, but cannot "migrate into" the environment because it is already there.
What ultimately happens to contaminants that are "cleaned up?" They may be treated and destroyed or at least rendered less inherently dangerous; and/or they may be disposed in the environment again, presumably in a place and in a manner that has a lower hazard now or in the future and/or meets other political objectives. Contaminants removed from the environment are present in a matrix of earth materials (soil, rock) or water, which may sometimes be partially removed from the contaminants to facilitate treatment, transport, and subsequent disposal of the latter. Cleanup may thus involve removing contaminants in earth or water in one place and disposing of them in another, with or without treatment or subsequent packaging, etc., even in another location at the same site, if the new location is much less hazardous or meets other important political objectives.

3. Cleanup involves political and cultural, as well as environmental, decisions

Cleanup involves risks to individuals, both to workers and to populations, as do all other human activities. Construction of homes, all industrial and laboratory work, military service, childbearing, even white-collar employment with accompanying stress, as well as recreational activities - not to mention dietary and life-style choices - all involve risk. Individuals and collectivities assume these often-considerable risks voluntarily for the sake of other goals and values deemed more important, or perhaps they do so as a result of coercion, compulsion, or vice. The first situation we call "freedom."
If risk reduction were the sole or even the primary goal of life, there would no human life at all, and in particular there would be no economic life.
Thus cleanup decisions, like all other decisions, are never made solely on the basis of net risk reduction or a balancing of risks, but always involve other political values and goals.
Risk, whether from contamination, from cleanup activities, from hostile attack or from the measures we take collectively in the name of "defense" or "national security," needs to be viewed in proportion to other risks, and especially in relation to the sum of all risks. The risk of death for each individual is unity - a complete certainty. As far as death is concerned (the usual central concern of "risk assessment"), all decisions in any sphere, including decisions about cleanup, national security, etc. can only change the time, place and manner of our death, not its probability.
Translating cleanup decisions into a context in which we focus on life, rather than one concerned with death and motivated by the fear of death, we can say that cleanup decisions are embraced not just in order to allow people live longer, but also in order to change the content or experience of life, as well as its meaning. Cleanup involves the living landscape, a tapestry woven of both fully human and fully non-human elements. Cleanup would change us as well as the land - again, assuming we act rather than drift.
Cleanup decisions, like other important personal and public decisions, change our relationships to past and future generations. Such decisions are in this sense fully historic and cultural as well as environmental.
Skipping past more rigorous preliminaries than appear here, I want to say that struggles over cleanup at LANL involve, among other things, a hidden cultural struggle over the meaning of nuclear weapons and nuclear careers (past, present, and future), and over the pollution that results from both. Especially: does that pollution truly exist, requiring action and investment on our part, or does it not exist - that is, is it trivial and forgettable? This is not an objective problem, but involves a political process based on value choices in which there are very clear material winners and losers.
The political function of the extensive "scientific investigation" process outlined in the NMED Order, should it stand, is to provide a way to postpone and to hide that political process behind a veneer of pseudo-scientific obfuscation and hence respectability, given a largely scientifically-illiterate society, while completely disenfranchising citizens in the process. That is the political function of risk assessment generally, and why it has become so well-funded by corporate interests around the world.

4. Publish what is already "known;" do modest, appropriate analysis

" Publish everything that is known - everything - from all previous studies at Los Alamos in a management- and citizen- friendly format on the web, including all unclassified data, and make everything available in active GIS files. No one, and certainly not NMED, has access to the pertinent data, even though in theory it is all available at LANL. This is a major project, and will involve the creation of meaning and memory through organizing what is "known." In fact, it is not known because it is not known by anybody, and cannot be used by anybody, not even LANL.

" For that matter, all unclassified data at LANL, of all kinds, should be available to all. Hiding public information in a democracy is like sticking one's head in the sand. It fosters what might be called a culture of institutional autism, and it does nothing for security. Activities and realities which have might have catastrophic consequences to the host society if revealed should not be done at all.

" For contamination already in underground waters, provide a summary by mass of each contaminant by aquifer for each surface watershed, with associated data quality and numerical bounding studies. Use existing data only.

" [More]

5. Halt land disposal at LANL

" Halt land disposal of new nuclear waste at LANL. Any hope of cleanup is largely absent without this step. This should be done because:

o a) LANL's dissected mesas have no sites suitable for nuclear waste disposal;
o b) DOE has access to far better disposal sites, both those it owns (e.g. the Nevada Test Site, with far better environmental conditions) and those it has under contract (e.g. in Utah, at a site without potable groundwater);
o c) shipping waste will require careful packaging and certification, which is not now done, and which will cause "upstream" pressure on waste generators, in effect internalizing externalities in waste generation decisions;
o d) off-site disposal will, according to knowledgeable insiders, be significantly cheaper than disposal at LANL; and most of all
o e) the programs which generate nuclear waste at LANL have, for the most part, negative social value in themselves and should be gradually shut down, greatly decreasing the volume of waste in question. This single step alone will "clean up" - i.e. prevent - approximately half the pollution at LANL by 2100, relative to options involving continued disposal.

" It will be argued that NMED has no brief to call for a halt to radioactive waste disposal, let alone radioactive waste generation. This is true, except at areas G, H, and L, over which NMED holds permitting authority, including closure and post-closure provisions among others. This is instead the official responsibility of the Governor and Legislature, whose job it is to articulate a consensus of values which protect New Mexicans and provide for the proper development of society, the state's economy, and for the protection of the state's environment. Regulation is not enough. It never has been. It draws its strength from ideals chosen and expressed, and from political investment in those values. Without leadership from elected representatives, leadership that is expressed in law and executive action, regulatory structures turn into formalized fossils and eventually prove unable to accomplish even rudimentary versions of the tasks originally set for them, although this failure may not be apparent until some sudden crisis or disaster. Governor Richardson has allowed NMED to waste its time and talent defending lawsuits that the Governor himself should have condemned loudly and clearly.

" [More]

6. Decontaminate and demolish old buildings

" There is no excuse for keeping contaminated buildings in place for years, even decades, like haunted ghosts. They are dangerous, and they should be removed.

7. [More to come]


^ back to top 2901 Summit Place NE Albuquerque, NM 87106, Phone: 505-265-1200, Fax: 505-265-1207