A significant deadline to remove all major waste from a key Los Alamos National Laboratory site by Dec. 6 went unmet this weekend.

The deadline Sunday was set in 2005 as part of an agreement between the lab, the state Environment Department and the U.S. Department of Energy. However, officials have said the initial guidelines for cleaning up waste from decades of nuclear weapons production are no longer realistic within the time frame, following the burst of a LANL drum at a waste repository in Southern New Mexico in 2014. That caused a radiation leak that shut down a significant portion of the repository.

The shutdown of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad has pushed back the completion of the cleanup project — estimated to cost more than $1 billion.

A revised cleanup agreement is anticipated for 2016, although a release date has not been scheduled.

Allison Majure, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Environment Department, said despite delays, the intent of the consent order for the LANL cleanup has not changed. “Just because the milestone passed does not mean the consent order is not in effect,” she said Monday.

She said public opinion has been solicited on the revised order.

Representatives for Los Alamos National Laboratory said they were unable to provide comment on the status of the order Monday.

Sunday’s deadline focused on “Area G,” LANL’s largest waste deposit site. A local watchdog group, Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said comprehensive cleanup for the site “is still decades away.”

In a statement released Monday, Nuclear Watch stressed the need for public participation in the revised cleanup order, including a public hearing, and condemned a plan proposed by LANL to “cap and cover” waste in Area G.

“Cleanup just keeps being delayed. If not corrected, cleanup simply won’t happen,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch.

“Nobody ever thought cleanup would be fully completed by the end of 2015; nobody is under any illusions about that,” he added.

The 2005 consent order came in response to a lawsuit between the Energy Department and the state Environment Department following several events that triggered federal pressure, including the Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos in 2000, which blazed through waste dump site “Area R.” Officials at the time feared the fire could spark an explosion.

Since the consent order was issued, however, the lab has missed several milestones, including a June 2014 deadline to remove above-ground radioactive waste — delayed due to last February’s leak at WIPP.

During a meeting in November, state Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said remaining cleanup costs under the 2005 order have been estimated at $1.2 billion by the federal government, but that these projections are too low; he said additional funds would be needed to meet cleanup targets, as well as the reappraisal of “unrealistic” milestones.

Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, another organization focused on nuclear issues in the state, said the previous consent order “left a great deal to be desired.”

“There have been some real cleanup successes at LANL, but they have come amid a considerable waste of federal resources in the program,” he said in an email Monday. “It’s a tough environment for success.”

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(1) comment

Greg Mello

Before the Los Alamos Study Group I was NMED's first official on site at LANL.

The era of proposing "comprehensive cleanup" at LANL with a straight face has passed. There is no public health basis for it. DOE, and the world, have far more serious environmental problems.

I think "comprehensive cleanup" translates to "send much more money, forever."

Asking for that at Area G, as opposed to a very well-engineered cap, is not a good idea and won't happen unless DOE were to build comprehensive on-site treatment, including a nuclear waste incinerator and vitrification facility or equivalent. Mobile containment over excavations, with workers on supplied air, would be required. A strong union with independent safety monitors is needed already. It would be dangerous work but so is other work we do.

The reason on-site thermal treatment would be required is that much of the waste is high-volume organic material (pallets, miscellaneous trash), which is biologically and hence geomorphically unstable. If the waste is to be reduced to a stable form it would have to be burned. Much waste is also at this point dirt or sand or concrete in very large volumes. The environmental impact of shipping all this waste elsewhere (where?) to be dumped would be staggering, and is entirely unjustified. Not just Area G but also Area C (the second-worst) and most of the other letters in the alphabet are involved.

What is needed is a risk-based assessment a far more efficient use of funds, which LANL never does.

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