Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has disposed of a total of approximately 13.5 million cubic feet of radioactive and chemical solid wastes on site since work began there in 1943.(1) All the radioactive waste, and most of the chemical waste, have been buried on the mesas of the Pajarito Plateau.(2) Radioactive liquid wastes were (and still are) discharged to the canyons, initially with little treatment.
In 1957, with its other designated solid waste sites filling up, the Laboratory set aside a then-new disposal area for solid radioactive waste, called Area G, on Mesita del Buey just west of White Rock. This site has been in continuous use since then, and has received over 10.7 million cubic feet of radwaste.(3) The waste is buried in dozens of giant shallow pits scraped into the mesa with bulldozers, typically 600 feet long and 30 feet deep, and in roughly two hundred shafts drilled into the soft tuff.
Area G began as a five-acre site; by 1976 it had grown to 37 acres. Now it is 63 acres in size, and LANL seeks to more than double this area by adding another 70 acres for pits and shafts. Additional disposal sites have been identified on other mesas for longer-term future expansion. The ancient pueblo ruins that once dotted the mesa have been destroyed as the site has grown.
Area G is also used for the indefinite storage of thousands of drums and boxes of plutonium wastes ("transuranic," or TRU, wastes), now slated to go to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). Much of this waste, were it actually analyzed, probably would be found not to contain enough plutonium to be TRU waste after all, and eventually it too could be buried at Area G.
Area G is adjacent to a permanent spring and several wetlands, and is upstream from the suburb of White Rock, New Mexico. Surface water in Pajarito Canyon has been used as a potable water supply from Anasazi times until the establishment of the Lab. Shallow, as well as intermediate ("perched") aquifers are found beneath Pajarito Canyon, immediately south of the dump; groundwater is percolating downward from this and other canyons to the deeper aquifer below.
Area G has one or more underground vapor plumes of organic solvents, and areas of the dump "breathe" radioactive tritium. Tritium has been found in the deep aquifer beneath Los Alamos--after decades of LANL assurances that this could never occur. So far, it appears that this tritium has come from other, non-Area-G sources at LANL. Yet even on the mesa tops, where Area G is built, evidence of flowing water can be found along fractures deep within the tuff.
Since the landfill has no engineered "cap" to prevent erosion and keep out water, plant roots and burrowing animals, plutonium and other materials does leave the site in small quantities. Plutonium has been found in site soils, vegetation, and in runoff and sediment washed from the site--in some cases up to 300 times background levels. Site "background" levels may themselves be elevated. Sediment dams are proposed for the main arroyos that drain the site, but there is as yet no commitment to provide a cap for Area G.
Area G is not subject to formal inspection and regulation by the State of New Mexico, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the EPA, the Pueblos, or any other outside agency.
Most LANL radioactive waste, and virtually all plutonium waste, comes from its nuclear weapons programs--programs which our detailed analysis has shown to be largely needless and wasteful.Notes:
1. Disposal volumes for disposal areas other than Area G were taken from LANL (Margaret Anne Rogers), 1977, History and Environmental Setting of LASL Near-Surface Land Disposal Facilities for Radioactive Wastes (Areas A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and T): A Source Document, LA-6848-MS, Vol. I. Disposal volumes at Area G through 1995 were taken from LANL (Hollis, et. al.), 1997, Performance Assessment and Composite Analysis for Los Alamos National Laboratory Material Disposal Area G, LA-UR-97-85, Appendix 2e. Disposal volumes since 1995 were taken from the estimates given in the Department Of Energy (DOE) Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement [SWEIS] for Continued Operation of the Los Alamos National Laboratory [LANL], 1999.
2. Since 1986, waste characterized by LANL as chemically hazardous has been shipped off the LANL site.
3. Waste volumes interred up to 1995 are given in
LANL (Hollis, et. al.), 1997, Appendix 2e. Estimates of the annual volume
of waste generation have been taken from the DOE LANL SWEIS, 1999.