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"Forget the Rest" blog

How Much Low-Level Waste Does DOE Plan to Dispose at LANL?

Informal remarks by Greg Mello, 11/29/02


Authoritative recent estimates of projected waste disposal at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) can be found in two subsequent editions of the Department of Energy's (DOE's) "Low-Level Waste Disposal Capacity Report."  They disagree somewhat, and both are provided here.
The first edition ("Revision 1") is available in laborious HTML sections at <>. Some 300+ pages long, it was released on 9/18/98.  In Table 2-1 of this document, we see that LANL's TA-54, Area G was then projected to receive some 560,000 cubic meters of low-level waste (LLW) between 1998 and 2070. 
For reference, there are some 35.32 cubic feet in a cubic meter, some 7.48 gallons per cubic foot, and some 55 gallons per drum (if drums were used), making 560,000 cubic meters equal to the volume in 2.7 million drums. 

Of these 560,000 cubic meters, only 37,000 cubic meters, or 7%, was to come from environmental restoration (ER) activities.  Some of this will be from the demolition of contaminated buildings rather than environmental cleanup sensu stricta.  The main point is that it is the operating programs, and not environmental cleanup, that were expected to generate the vast bulk of the new waste - at least 93% of it.

The total waste disposed to date at LANL in 26 landfills is roughly 18,000,000 cubic feet (or 510,000 cubic meters; see "waste quantities by MDA"), which is just a little less than the 560,000 cubic meters projected in this report.  The period from 1943 to 1998 is 55 years; the period from 1998 to 2070 is 72 years -- just a little more.  Within the accuracy of the estimates, we can then say that the rates of disposal at LANL up to now, and the rates of disposal projected in this report for LANL, were about equal to one another. 

There is now a new projection, however, entitled "The Current and Planned Low-Level Waste Disposal Capacity Report, Revision 2," dated December 2000.  This report contains remarkable differences from the 1998 one.  It is available at <>, in convenient pdf form.

First, the ultimate additional capacity of Area G has been increased from 225,000 to 1.6 million cubic meters -- a 711% increase - from Revision 1.  The new number is about 3 times the total disposed volume at LANL today, and is about 5 times the volume of what is in Area G today.

Second, the total projected low-level waste (LLW) in the "volume destined for waste operations facilities" in Revision 2 has decreased by some 380,000 cubic meters complex-wide -- which decrease is, as far as I can tell, all at LANL (see p. 2-2, and Table 2-2, p. 2-6).  So the planned disposal of LLW at LANL is now much less than it was in 1998 (about one-fifth), but the ultimate capacity for disposal is much more (factor of 7).  Go figure.

Both reports "lose" -- do not mention -- all the waste disposed in all the landfills at LANL prior to roughly 1995.  In a footnote to Table 2-6 in the 2000 report, "past disposal" is defined as disposal in pits in operation during or after 1995 -- "It [the table] does not consider waste disposed at other units closed prior to 1995."  Of course, neither Area G nor any part of it (nor of Area H, nor of Area L) has ever been formally closed, which is precisely the regulatory issue regarding them.

None of the volumes (in either Revision 1 or Revision 2) include the hundreds of other contaminated sites, for which there is no good volume estimate.  At
<> can be found a pdf chart dated 7/30/99, typical of the era, that shows the expected cleanup volumes for LANL and other sites by waste type and disposition.  It shows 32,000 cubic meters of ER waste going to TA-54, similar to the 1998 report; some 279,000 cubic meters of transuranic waste (TRU) waste in the ground at LANL to be capped and left, and some 200,000 cubic meters of LLW "soil/sediments" to be "contained in-situ," whatever that may mean.  The total waste shown is 575,000 cubic meters, just 65,000 cubic meters more than the roughly 510,000 cubic meters that is now in the 26 designated landfills at LANL. 

The bottom line is that DOE is still planning on disposing millions of cubic feet of radioactive waste at LANL.  It has decreased the total expected amount of disposal (by a roughly a factor of 5), even as it has increased the total officially available disposal capacity (by roughly a factor of 7).  DOE's year 2000 estimate is "only" about 33 drums per working day for the next 68 years at LANL, down from its 1998 estimate of roughly 132 drums per working day for 72 years. 

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