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Radioactive trash is dumped into Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Disposal Area C, Pit 6, in 1958. U.S. Department of Energy officials propose installing a 2-foot-thick, dirt-and-rock cover over Area C, which was shut down in 1974.

One of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s older nuclear waste disposal sites — a Cold War relic — would be capped and covered rather than cleaned up under a plan put forth by federal officials.

Known as Area C, the 73-year-old dumpsite was shut down in 1974 after taking radioactive waste, caustic chemicals, treatment-plant sludge and a variety of trash, according to records.

U.S. Department of Energy officials propose installing a 2-foot-thick, dirt-and-rock cover they say will safely contain the waste, prevent toxins from leaching into soil and groundwater, and avoid the hazards that excavating the waste would pose to workers and the environment. It also would save hundreds of millions of dollars.

A watchdog group called the plan an attempt to save money without considering the potential long-term hazards of keeping highly toxic, slow-decaying waste buried in unlined pits roughly 1,000 feet above a vital groundwater source.

“The aquifer — that’s our main concern,” said Scott Kovac, research and operations director for the nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “If climate change does affect us and things start drying out, then our aquifer is going to be even more important than it already is. We have to do everything to protect our aquifer that we can.”

While officials estimate the cover will last up to 1,000 years, the buried plutonium waste has a half-life of 24,000 years, Kovac said, citing Nuclear Regulatory Commission data.

One historic record indicates the site contains discarded uranium, which has a half-life of 4.5 billion years.

This proposal raises concerns it could pave the way for capping the much larger Area G dumpsite, which contains a vast amount of legacy nuclear waste that is requiring a decadeslong cleanup, Kovac said.

Because of possible impacts on natural resources, the state Environment Department has the final say. It will will review the plan to determine whether it’s a viable solution or whether the Energy Department should make adjustments or seek another remedy.

The Environment Department’s chosen remedy, along with arguments and evidence to back it, will be presented to the public for comment. Hearings also might be scheduled.

“It is by no means out of the question for the final remedy to change based upon public comment and/or additional evidence presented at a public hearing,” Environment Department spokeswoman Maddy Hayden wrote in an email.

Area C’s underground entrails consist of seven pits and 108 shafts, with only 10 of the shafts filled with concrete, according to the federal report outlining the proposed cap-and-cover measure.

Federal officials estimate the site contains 190,000 cubic yards of varied waste, and that about 240,000 cubic yards of material would have to be removed if excavated.

Capping the site with an “evapotranspiration” cover, made of soil and rocks, would cost $12 million, versus an estimated $805 million to excavate.

An Energy Department representative insisted the recommended cover was based more on safety than cost savings.

“The first priority is the safety of site workers, the public and the environment,” an agency spokeswoman wrote in an email.

The analysis weighed the risks to workers and the public if the waste was dug up, packaged and then transported through local communities for years, she wrote, adding it concluded capping was a safer option.

The cover would capture moisture from precipitation and hold it until it evaporates, preventing it from passing through the buried waste and carrying contaminants to the aquifer, she wrote. It also would act as a filter for escaping gases from a vapor plume located below the waste, she added.

Without water percolating through the waste, there is no leachate — contaminated water — created that can absorb into the soil, according to the spokeswoman.

Monitoring sensors have shown the success of these caps at Los Alamos and other waste sites in the Southwest, she wrote, adding these covers work especially well in arid environments with drier soils and higher evaporation rates.



Research also shows the growth of native vegetation on the cover further removes moisture that could cause toxic leaching, she wrote.

Kovac dismissed the notion that the waste is safer below ground than above it.

Waste “can’t be too dangerous to dig up but not too dangerous to leave behind, above our aquifer,” he said.

He believes the waste should be scooped out of the pits and analyzed.

Radioactive material should be sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground disposal site in Carlsbad, Kovac said. The pits should be lined, just as landfills now are required to do, and the nonradioactive waste can then be reburied.

Devices should be installed directly under the pits that can immediately detect any leaking contaminants, Kovac said.

Right now, there are three monitoring wells. One is near Area C, one is 600 feet away and the other is 2,000 feet away.

These devices are designed to trace waste that has seeped 1,000 feet or more into the ground, Kovac said, making it easier for stray contaminants to be missed.

He contends saving money is a definite motive for the Energy Department to install a cover — and that it shouldn’t be a concern to an agency with such a colossal budget.

The $800 million it would cost to unearth the waste, separate it and rebury it is less than the agency is spending in a year to ramp up the lab’s production of plutonium triggers for nuclear warheads, Kovac noted.

The document written by a lab employee in 1974 chronicles Area C’s first pits being dug in 1948. It describes the crude disposal practices of the early days that gradually evolved into safer, more sophisticated methods, with employees seeming to experiment as they went along.

It notes that an array of chemicals, including ignitable ones, were dumped there, along with uranium, radioactive debris, beta gamma waste, sludge from treatment plants and uncontaminated refuse.

Early on, workers stuffed contaminated waste into plastic bags and cardboard boxes rather than in sturdy, sealed containers, the record says.

“Inadvertently, some plutonium contaminated objects were placed in the pit but have long since been covered,” it says.

It goes on to say that because of the uranium disposed of in one pit, it should be assumed this pit is mildly alpha contaminated — meaning radioactive.

Radioactive waste disposal was phased out at the site after Area G was established to take those materials. The last radioactive waste was dumped at Area C in the mid-1960s.

Kovac said given the lack of regulations governing how waste was disposed of decades ago, it’s important to see what’s in the pits and assess the hazards rather than simply covering them.

There’s a chance that certain types of waste should not, by modern standards, be mixed together or stashed in the ground, he said. But the lab and Energy Department seem OK with not applying current environmental guidelines whenever possible, he said.

“Anything before the 1980s is grandfathered in,” Kovac said.

(10) comments

joe martinez

The waste site at Los Alamos is about 700 feet above the aquifer with impenetrable volcanic tuff in between. Mr Kovac should be worried. The costs of removing some of the waste is incalculable so don't believe those numbers. And comment about risk of digging and transporting being much higher than "capping" is right on.

Jake Javanski

Mr. Kovac - With respect to your comment, "Waste “can’t be too dangerous to dig up but not too dangerous to leave behind, above our aquifer,” in your role you must understand the exposure risk differences between "dig and haul" and using ET cover on western arid waste sites. Because dig and haul presents significant risk to workers, the nearby public during excavation, the public during transportation, the public at the new disposal site, this is a rational alternative that needs to be considered.

Stefanie Beninato

Thanks, Greg, for your comment. And what will LANL do with the old pits (plutonium cores) when the new pits are produced? Bury them? Or pretend they are low level nuclear waste to be stored in salt caverns near Carlsbad?

joe martinez

Money LANL gets for waste site remediation has nothing to do with pit production. Every single project at the Lab is funded separately and they cannot transfer money appropriated for one project to another. Funding for remediation is allocated in DC for the various sites with nuclear waste. I would assume the amount to each location is based on risk to some extent. Risk at Los Alamos is less than driving on Cerrillos on a Saturday. There are two locations that I know of that I would bet will never be dug up. Not enough money in the Treasury for one and too dangerous the other one. Kovac's opinions are 2 clicks below worthless to me. The writer should get comments from people at DOE and LANL who know what they're talking about.

Sasha Pyle

Joe, are you on DOE’s payroll by any chance? It seems likely. First of all, people who have been involved with public advocacy on nuclear waste issues for decades DO know what they’re talking about. I am one of those people as well, and Scott’s comments are right on point. He knows darn well that budgets are separate for the deadly weapons and the beneficial programs/cleanup. All of us know that, so your argument rings very false. The overwhelming majority of resources go to the death industry, and a lot of it is wasted. It’s so much more fun to make new weapons and waste than deal responsibly with what you already have. That’s precisely what needs to change, and dialogue about it must continue. Since the Lab has its own well-funded PR campaigns, reporters need to seek out other voices and should be lauded for doing so.

joe martinez

chuckle....Not on anyone's payroll. Just not a member of the wacko anti-nuke free-tibet crowd that infests the area. I can't read minds like Liberals can.

Greg Mello

Good reporting and good comments from Scott, IMO. Some additional issues bear that New Mexicans should know about. A few of them:

* Excavation of Area C conflicts logistically, politically, fiscally, and terms of scarce resources with plutonium warhead core ("pit") production at adjacent TA-55 and other supporting areas (e.g. TA-50, also adjacent). Pit production plans to be executed by 2026 include a parking lot on top of Area C, necessary to accommodate the three shifts that must be working at TA-55 by then if these plans proceed. In principle parking elsewhere could be provided but overall, flat land in this general area is extremely scarce. Excavation would require ~20,000 12 yard truckloads just of waste and dirt, plus the same number of return trips, not including tens of thousands of other vehicle trips, which would tie up Pajarito Road and SR 4, the latter already at a stand-still with traffic at the end of the day shift. Construction supporting pit production at TA-55 or TA-48 requires laydown areas. Where these would be is unclear but Area C is an obviously an option. Excavation of Area C is programmatically risky, in that no one knows how long it would take to do it semi-safely -- yes, it would be dangerous -- or what it would cost. There are uncertainties. It will take many years. These uncertainties, to the extent they affect pit production, also help make excavation of Area C and pit production conflicting priorities.

The political conflicts are related. Will the Governor, or the NM delegation, allow place pit production to be placed at increased risk by asking for the excavation of Area C? Pit production at LANL is worth ~$50 billion over 50 years. Excavation of Area C is worth $1 billion, and a lot of embarrassment and inconvenience for White Rock and other communities. Which will it be for them?

The fiscal conflict is obvious. Appropriators have to cut the pies they are given. Less obvious is the shortage of skilled labor affecting LANL's missions. "Cleanup" and "buildup" both draw on much the same limited workforce.

The only reason Area C has not been addressed before now is 35 years of poor regulation by NMED. There has been excellent work by many parties, but political will has been lacking by all parties. It has just not been a priority. A few billion dollars have been more or less wasted on LANL studies and various gold-plated activities costing vastly more than they do in private industry, while the lab -- enabled by NMED -- has shied away from most actual cleanup.

Excavation of Area C is unlikely if LANL pit production proceeds. Yet for Nuclear Watch, as they has written elsewhere, LANL pit production is -- according to them -- to be greatly preferred over Savannah River Site pit production. We disagree on many grounds, including in this context environmental impacts and environmental justice. The litigation being brought in South Carolina by South Carolina attorneys, to which Nuclear Watch is a party, is an attempt to halt SRS investments, making LANL the only pit production site. It will fail to achieve this for the basic reason that LANL will never be an adequate or safe pit production site, whereas SRS can be both (to the extent pit production could be safe anywhere), and everybody knows that at this point. Alas, the U.S. will not opt for zero pit production any more than it would opt to retire its nuclear deterrent altogether, and for the same reason.

What the public needs to understand is that in the specific instance of Area C as well as more broadly, we cannot always have both. New Mexico has to pick its priorities and be very clear about what we want and what we are willing to put up with. The normal forms of civic participation have largely been neutered of impact and are not going to be adequate in this matter, as in many others.

Khal Spencer

As usual, a thoughtful and nuanced comment from Mr. Mello.

William Craig

https://hwbdocuments.env.nm.gov/Los%20Alamos%20National%20Labs/A_Index/LANL%20Index.pdf

is a long list of historical documents, although it’s unclear to which one the bad link in the article is referring

https://nukewatch.org/newsite/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Area-C-Press-Release-7-21-21.pdf is the relevant Nuclear Watch N.M. press release.

The security state is very good at covering up things to keep us from being nationally insecure.

LEE HAI

Yep, sending ones mistakes under the carpet deeper into covert denial is much more cost efficient......Ah, the mad-cap antics of the so called 'modern' world, what to do with all of our clever smarty pants skeems that got us stuck between a rock and a hard place, other than the promotion of more warm and fuzzy feel good PR feeding the gullible......):

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