Los Alamos National Laboratory would receive a $108 million increase for environmental cleanup under its proposed 2022 budget, a dramatic shift from Trump-era efforts to reduce cleanup money.
The newly released draft budget asks for about $334 million for the lab’s cleanup programs — up from this year’s $226 million — and would include removing Cold War legacy waste, demolishing at least one deserted structure and mitigating an underground chromium plume.
That’s in contrast to last year’s proposal by the Trump administration to cut the lab’s cleanup funding by $100 million. New Mexico’s delegates managed to restore the funding to the current amount in the final budget.
“This is by far the most that LANL has ever gotten for cleanup,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director for the nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “It’s a huge deal.”
Coghlan and other waste-cleanup advocates say the proposed funding increase is tied to the state Environment Department suing the U.S. Department of Energy for moving too slow in removing the lab’s legacy waste.
As part of the lawsuit, state regulators seek to dissolve a 2016 cleanup agreement — known as a consent order — between the state and the Energy Department, arguing that it’s too lax and sets no real deadlines for work.
“There’s a lot more money all of a sudden after the Environment Department brought a lawsuit against LANL for dragging its feet on the cleanup — which LANL has been doing since the 2016 consent order,” said Charles de Saillan, staff attorney for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.
The lawsuit and heftier funding are no coincidence, de Saillan said.
Energy Department officials wouldn’t comment beyond acknowledging in an email that the added money would be put to use.
Additional funding “enables the remediation of DP Road contamination, the retrieval and repackaging of below-grade transuranic waste in Area G, and the continuation of soil cleanup and groundwater, and surface water monitoring,” wrote Joe Ritchey, a contractor with the agency’s environmental management office in Los Alamos.
Ritchey was referring to the road in Los Alamos where radioactive debris was found in February 2020 and where the contamination has proved more extensive than first assessed. He also was describing cleanup work being done at Area G, a disposal site containing a massive amount of legacy waste.
Coghlan said he was glad to see the budget give an extended timeline of 2090 for total cleanup, with estimated costs running as high as $8.4 billion. The consent order, he said, grossly underestimated the required completion time at 2040 and “lowballed” the cost at $3.8 billion.
He said he’d prefer the lab do a thorough cleanup, creating good-paying jobs along the way, rather than cutting corners.
The lab should put the sprawling and highly toxic chromium plume at the top of its cleanup list, Coghlan said.
The plume amassed decades ago beneath Sandia and Morlandad canyons and was seeping toward an aquifer. Last year, lab officials said crews managed to stop the plume’s migration, at least temporarily.
About $60 million would go toward demolishing the defunct ion beam materials lab, which has stood vacant for many years.
“It will save the taxpayers money to tear down the dangerous, old, contaminated building,” Coghlan said, because it requires maintenance even though it’s unused.
One lab critic said she appreciates congressional leaders’ efforts to get more cleanup money, but it must coincide with good practices by federal managers.
“More funding doesn’t mean we will get better cleanup,” said Joni Arends, executive director of nonprofit Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety.
Agency officials are spending a lot of money on legal fees, partly to fight the court battle over the consent order, Arends said.
They have petitioned state and federal regulators to allow “analytical methods” that don’t recognize pollutants at more minute traces, she said. That essentially would allow the lab to forgo removing a large amount of contaminated material, she said.
“I don’t mean to throw a wet blanket on this money, but there are some reality checks that need to be addressed,” Arends said.
Coghlan agreed that a larger pot of money, while welcome, is no guarantee of a more effective cleanup.
“Our delight with the increased funding is tempered by the hope that it is efficiently used,” Coghlan said.