Los Alamos National Laboratory will release radioactive vapors into the atmosphere to ventilate several barrels of tritium-tainted waste generated during the Cold War.

The lab informed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month that it would ventilate four waste containers, beginning April 17, to relieve the built-up, radioactive hydrogen in the barrels’ headspace to prevent them from rupturing while they’re being handled. The EPA approved the application for the radioactive release last year.

Lab personnel will ventilate one container at a time and filter the released vapors through on-site equipment to limit the amount of tritium that is discharged into the atmosphere, according to the lab’s EPA application.

Tritium is a radioactive hydrogen isotope and is found, both naturally and human-made, in water, soil and the atmosphere. It is generally only harmful when ingested in high doses in food and water, and can increase the risk of cancer in some people, according to a Health Physics Society webpage.

However, some medical researchers contend any amount of radiation exposure can risk damaging tissues, cells and DNA, potentially causing genetic mutations, birth defects and cancer.

Because radionuclides — such as those found in tritium — are carcinogenic, the EPA has stated the goal should be zero emissions, though the agency allows some discharge, said Charles de Saillain, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

“There is no safe level for radionuclides,” de Saillan said. “The more radionuclides you put in the atmosphere, the worse it is.”

The tritium in the four waste drums adds up to roughly 114,000 curies of radiation. A curie is a unit of radioactivity equal to what a gram of radium emits.

The lab’s application states high-efficiency particulate air filters and other equipment would significantly reduce the tritium if it is released, though it couldn’t say by how much.

“We have emissions controls to capture some of the tritium, and active monitoring in place to ensure that we protect public health and safety and do not exceed regulatory limits,” said Toni Chiri, a spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous branch of the Department of Energy.

One anti-nuclear advocate said he didn’t trust the agency’s statements on how it will reduce the amount of tritium that’s released.

Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said in the 1990s he won a lawsuit against the Energy Department for falsely claiming a building’s “shielding factor” kept radioactive emissions within federal limits.

“The undocumented assertion in the application that half of the tritium could remain behind in equipment should be viewed with suspicion,” Coghlan said.

The lab aims to keep the released tritium radiation to 8 millirems, staying within the 10 millirems that federal guidelines permit the lab per year, according to the application.

A millirem measures radiation exposure.

“I don’t see from the document any radiation overexposure concerns for the general public,” said Bemnet Alemayehu, a radiation health scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “However, the release should be controlled and monitored to avoid any uncontrolled release risks.”

One or two drums would be ventilated per week and shipped to a commercial waste storage site.

Wind velocity and direction would be factors during the release, which could lead to less tritium being discharged.

If the federal limit is reached before all the drums are ventilated, the remaining drums would be put back into storage at the lab until next year.

This tritium is a byproduct of nuclear weapons production during the Cold War.

The lab has become more cautious about containers being combustible after a crew packed a waste drum with a mixture of wheat-based cat litter and nitrate salts in 2014, causing it later to explode and leak radiation at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad.

WIPP shut down for three years and the cleanup cost was about $2 billion.

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction: An earlier version incorrectly said radiation exposure is measured in millireps. The correct term is millirems.

(29) comments

Lisa Smith

According to the LANL a environmental application, the containers will be vented into a tritium getter not just released into the atmosphere, which is clearly stated in page 3. The application also lists several calculations that bound potential release scenarios. With a getter efficiency of 90%, less than 1 mrem will be exhausted and 20% efficiency is 7 mrem, which is approximately 1/50th of a person’s total yearly background radiation dose . To put in perspective, 7 mrem is slightly more than a dental x-ray and half of a mammogram (13 mrem) and 1/100th a CT scan!

Hermann Bautzmann

Radiation Doses in Perspective (in millirem)

On average, Americans receive a radiation dose of about 620 milliremeach year. Half of this dose comes from natural background radiation. Most of this background exposure comes from radon in the air, with smaller amounts from cosmic rays and the Earth itself. (The chart to the right shows these radiation doses in perspective.) The other half (0.31 rem or 310 mrem) comes from man-made sources of radiation, including medical, commercial, and industrial sources. In general, a yearly dose of 620 millirem from all radiation sources has not been shown to cause humans any harm.

Erich Kuerschner

While true, at some point adding a single insignificant straw does break the camel's back. Let's apply science to the WHOLE load, not "one straw at a time". see my comment to James Hopf and do the SWEIS! Also single doses are not the same as 'average yearly doses", the limit BTW by both DOE and NRC is set at 100mrem/yr

Erich Kuerschner

hmm Where IS my response to James?

Lisa Smith

The DOE limit for workers is 5 rem/yr. LANL is even more conservative and sets an institutional level of 2 rem. Regardless, I hope you avoid any kind of medical procedures in the future as it may break your camel’s back.

James Hopf

I'm opposed to more pit production as well, but it seems that for many commenters here, (valid) opposition to various LANL activities is an excuse to throw science out the window.

We're talking about a prediction, based on extremely conservative analyses, that a single (or small number of) most-exposed individual(s) may receive a dose of 10 mrem. 10 mrem is a very small fraction of the ~600 mrem average dose everyone gets every year. That average dose mainly comes from natural background and medical sources. Natural background doses vary by a factor of several, and no correlation between background dose and cancer incidence has ever been observed.

In other words, any public exposures resulting from this release are orders of magnitude too small to have any measurable health impact at all.

Meanwhile, millions of people go on dying every year from fossil fuel pollution, and the planet continues to heat up. If you're concerned about public health or the environment, "issues" like these are not what you should be focusing on. To give just one example, the huge oil drilling industry in New Mexico has a negative public health and environmental impact that is millions of times larger than any associated with these tritium barrels.

Paul White

Why not err on the side of complete caution. The most conservative method would be to not release near population centers for best practices shouldn't this be considered: There are some pretty smart scientists up there, they need to get on it. For one, it could be transferred to other containers and then shipped away from population centers? Might cost a little more but they need to think outside the box. Or in this case outside of the container.

Hermann Bautzmann

Please listen to the science. This amount of radiation is minuscule when compared to the amount of background radiation you receive daily

Lisa Smith

And how do you transfer headspace gas from one container to another? These are containers with tritium-contaminated items where some amount of the tritium had deserved over time.

Paul White

I guess you haven't been around NM when LANL oops, goofed, sorry everyone, you are now exposed, and we will take soil samples (nope). As I said, "what can go wrong? The violations are too long to post, deregulation has weakened oversight, sorry I think your argument for "too small" is what we've heard numerous times. There are some smart scientists there, they could work on a relief method that would contain the releases, just that it might cost a bit which would be too much.

Erich Kuerschner

Hi James Hopf:

Thank you for excellent response . I mostly agree with your takeaway line (with a few nuanced exceptions) and one VERY major exception:

“I'm opposed to more pit production as well, but it seems that for many commenters here, (valid) opposition to various LANL activities is an excuse to throw science out the window.”

I am indeed driven to comment (use as an opportunity) to comment (I strongly oppose more pit production) on an airborne release and agree (if done properly) adds a VERY small increase to the average public exposure. But I am also driven by the experience of “science being thrown out the window “by LANL itself- in trying to assess health impacts emanating from LANLlf.

Some minor comments. As placemats, I have a set of four: “Ionizing dose ranges – in Rems on one side, Sievert on the other) from June 2010 put out by hyyp://lowdose.energy.gov I received in the process of trying to introduce science, not only to health risks, but to the process of determining the costs and benefits from pit production, As Greg Mello pointed out in his piece “We call for sanity not nuclear production” LANL and our (mis)representations to Congress, the City of Santa Fe, and the RCLC, all REFUSE to apply the mandated EIS to these missions you claim to oppose. So yes, we are forced to use whatever opportunity falls through these censored cracks. I believe (but am not certain) that these placemats came from my involvement with the LAHDRA [Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment project – https://wwwn.cdc.gov/LAHDRA/ ]

under the direction of Dr. Tom Widner from the CDC [Center for Disease Control]. My involvement ( and perhaps this entire project, although I suspect there where many other NGO’s contributing to this effort) came from Sheri Kotowski (Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring group) and Joni Arends (Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety).

In the attempt to apply science to health effects once we made progress under Dr Widner’s CDC leadership, and science got us to the point of needing to reconstruct actual individual doses (average population doses is one thing, individual dose exposure another), the funding to continue a scientific study was dropped. So NO, NO, NO, I am DEFINETLY NOT opposed to science. The EXCACT OPPOSITE. I am opposed to applying it selectively, in isolated instances were it benefits LANL, and strongly opposing it when it does not support increased pit production.

Minor points. Why compare the EPA dose limit from release in air (10mrem) to average (you claim 600mrem- implying 300mrem from other than background sources- with the HIGH radon readings in NNM, I suspect the NM average (what is the NM average?) is considerably higher then the US average(300mrem))- rather than to the 100 mrem DOE, NRC dose limit for the public? It is these insidious continuous piecemeal additions to the exposure that is the problem. I suspect you are aware that the releases from the previous pit manufacturing facility LANL replaced where NOT insidious, but in fact the lies concerning releases were so egregious that the FBI raid which closed the facility had to be conducted in secret.

I hope you and Scott Wylund continue to push for more science, in BOTH the health consequences of LANL, but whether these health risks (costs) are justified by the alleged benefits (NEVER subjected to scientific analysis) and putting citizens at risk (my allegation) PURELY for the DOLLARS that can be stuffed in private pockets due to the lies on which LANL and the Manhattan

Project was based. For the record, I am the son of a Paperclip scientist, and my father worked on the TEAM B fiasco while on loan to RAND, so I am very familiar with why the Manhattan Project was built (And Leslie Grove’s statement to that effect is part of the public record, buried in the Congressional Record as part of the transcript of the trial stripping Oppenheimer of his security clearance in the mid 50’s). For the Team B fiasco (thank you Dr. Anne Cahn for your FOI persistence!! Written up here: https://amzn.to/2Jel3f9)

try: http://bit.ly/2cEkyxq


Also I worked with the current SF Mayor on an early EIS (Mt. Hood Fwy project) during a summer break while teaching economics at now Col State, Pueblo). So it is clear to me that the NEPA process is no longer being followed by the Too Big to be held accountables. SO thank you all that wish science to be applied WHEREVER it matters, not just when it benefits the already wealthy.

So please let’s apply science as a TOTAL concept, and push the SF council and Mayor, and our Congressional delegation to support a SWEIS- a system wide EIS, as opposed to this selective “use science when and where it supports pit production, and oppose science when it hurts the pit production mission.

Khal Spencer

"“I don’t see from the document any radiation overexposure concerns for the general public,” said Bemnet Alemayehu, a radiation health scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “However, the release should be controlled and monitored to avoid any uncontrolled release risks.”

Says the only person here who knows what they are talking about.

Erich Kuerschner

Hmm.... are we dismissing the work of John Goffman here?


Read his book "Radiation and Human Health: A compregensive investigation of the evidence relating low-level radiation to cancer and other diseases?

Sorry anyone working for an institution still thinking it a good idea to increase pit-production is not a credible source for me.

James Hopf

Especially considering that the statement comes from the NRDC, which is generally an anti-nuclear organization. If (even) they don't think it's an issue, it's NOT and issue!

Paul Gibson

Including you.

Jon Block

There is no acceptable level of radiation exposure, no low-level that would not harm the cellular structure of living creatures. Radiation destroys the genetic material in our cells and that of other animals and plants if it hits that material. Whether mutations develop is entirely probabilistic. Why should anyone be forced to play that kind of Russian roulette in order to assist LANL/DOE/NNSA in disposing of more of its nuclear garbage? The regulations in place do not take that scientific fact into account. The DOE created regulations permitting up to 10-mrem exposure in order to permit it to pollute the human and natural environment with radioactive waste of all kinds--its the cheap means of disposal. The history of lies, criminal activities and dangerous accidents at LANL that it and the DOE/NNSA tried to cover up means that to believe LANL's statements about an activity being safe for the public and the workers at LANL one would have to be extremely naive, enamored of nuclear weapons, or financially tied to the LANL/DOE/NNSA money machine.

James Hopf

Even if it were true that cancer risk scales directly with radiation exposure all the way down to zero (and most of the evidence suggests that it's not true), allowing some level of release (or public exposure) is justified. That's how it works for all other types of pollution and potential carcinogens. No such thing as zero risk.

Your comment suggests that there should be a zero risk standard for nuclear things only. If we applied that same logic to other industries and endeavors, the entire economy would shut down. You wouldn't be allowed to drive a (polluting) car. You wouldn't be allowed to heat your home. Fossil fuel use in general would be banned. All those other activities pose vastly larger public health risk than this tritium release, even if one conservatively assumes no threshold for radiation impacts.

Analyses, which are almost certainly overly conservative, estimate that one, or a few, people would receive 10 mrem. That compares to the ~600 mrem the average American gets every year, mainly from natural background and medical sources (natural background alone is ~300 mrem). A single cross-country flight gives you a dose of ~3.5 mrem. And millions of people fly every year, vs. a handful that will get less than 10 mrem from this tritium release. By your logic, air travel should (clearly!) be banned.

If cancer risk scaled directly with radiation dose, then the number of cancers would scale directly with collective exposure, in man-Rem (dose times number of people exposed). Well, the nuclear power and weapons industries (including LANL) are responsible for less than 0.1% of mankind's collective radiation exposure. So, even if we did assume that any level of radiation posed some risk, then we would be focusing on reducing other sources of exposure (natural background, radon, medical, air travel, etc..).

Jay Coghlan

To reiterate, the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is not to be trusted. In the late 1990’s the Lab was claiming in public meetings that groundwater contamination was impossible, even going so far as to formally request a waiver from the New Mexico Environment Department to even have to monitor for groundwater contamination. Fortunately, NMED rejected that request, and unfortunately, we now know of major plumes of hexavalent chromium and high explosives groundwater contamination that threatens our common regional aquifer.

LANL claimed in a Lab-produced insert in the Sunday New Mexican that plutonium from Lab operations had never been found in the Rio Grande. That was intentionally misleading since plutonium is not soluble and therefore is not found in the waters of the Rio Grande. However, it was already known by LANL management and well documented that plutonium was in the mud of the Rio Grande, especially Cochiti Lake.

The article mentions a Clean Air Act lawsuit that I was involved in. It was a major victory for New Mexicans when a federal judge ruled that LANL was in major violation of the Act at 31 out of 33 major radioactive air emissions stacks. A mere four months later the Lab came out with a “miraculous” press release claiming that all the sudden it was in full compliance with the Clean Air Act, when previously the Lab had said in annual congressional budget requests that it would cost millions and take years to come into compliance. Fortunately, a brave whistleblower came forward, eviscerating LANL’s false claim of compliance.

Now we have a situation where the Department of Energy proposes to nearly triple funding for expanded plutonium pit production at LANL which will cause more radioactive wastes and contamination. At the same time DOE proposes to cut cleanup nearly in half. Further, the Lab plans to leave permanently buried some 400,000 cubic yards of radioactive and toxic wastes above our groundwater, three miles uphill from the Rio Grande. In one case, plutonium has already been detected 500 feet below the surface of the waste dump, more than halfway to deep groundwater.

What does this tell northern New Mexicans? As DOE and LANL help launch a new global nuclear arms race, they don’t really care about you! Fight back. Tell Udall, Heinrich and Lujan that you want nation-wide review of DOE’s plans for expanded plutonium pit production followed by a new Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement for the Los Alamos Lab.

Jay Coghlan

Nuclear Watch New Mexico


Khal Spencer

Is there an update on this study?


Paul White

Why can't the buildup be transferred to another container and then transported to the moon? Oh, yeah, because we are living on a flat earth and our politicians are triangles

Erich Kuerschner

Best I can tell, Mayor Weber is among those "... more progressive politicians support new plutonium pit production at LANL, alleging it will "stimulate" our economy." I join Sara and the Los Alamos Study Group in calling for SANITY, not more nuclear pit production. As an Economist, I find the assertion that one can improve economic wellbeing merely by putting more dollars into the economy, especially when these welfare payments MANDATE the withdrawal of resources from productive use as well as the production of more toxins, beyond ABSURD, more in the area of INSANITY.

Greg Mello, of the Los Alamos Study Group, says it quite clearly:

We call for sanity, not nuclear production

Further development and manufacturing of nuclear weapons by the United States undermines the ethical basis of our society, breaks treaties our nation has signed, wastes our nation’s wealth, and permanently contaminates our environment while undermining true U.S. national security.

New Mexico’s two nuclear weapons labs lead the world in spending for weapons of mass destruction. But as the labs have grown, our state’s relative economic standing has declined and now trails almost all other states. We are now ranked the worst state in the U.S. in which to raise a child.

We cannot build our society, nurture our children, inspire our youth, or improve our communities by investing in apocalyptic nightmares.

We, businesses and community organizations serving New Mexico, call upon our elected officials to:

Oppose plutonium warhead core (“pit”) production at LANL first and foremost, but also elsewhere.

Reject any and all participation by NNSA or LANL in the City’s Midtown District Project.

Oppose the design, testing, and production of new or “upgraded” nuclear weapons.

Prioritize removal of approximately 20,000 drums of legacy plutonium waste from LANL over production of additional nuclear waste and new nuclear weapons.

Demand, immediately, a thorough examination of reasonable alternatives to LANL’s proposed industrial plutonium warhead core (“pit”) production mission, as well as to LANL’s proposed dramatic expansion overall, via a new, up-to-date Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement (SWEIS).

Choose human security, community resilience, and environmental protection over nuclear weapons production and our bloated military, which consume over half of federal discretionary spending. We can no longer delay. We must use every opportunity at every level of government to prioritize human needs, invest in our communities, and build a more just and sustainable society.


Sabra Gibson

Can we take this moment of social distancing and quiet contemplation to reflect upon the absurdity of the status quo? Even our more progressive politicians support new plutonium pit production at LANL, alleging it will "stimulate" our economy. When we read at the end of this article that the wheat-based kitty litter caper that blew up and shut down WIPP for 3 years at a cost of $2 Billion, how is this even in the range of mildly insane? No, this is completely insane! Politicians, please note: we are sitting at home contemplating new and better patterns for living. Current policies and practices at LANL do not conform to conditions that living systems require now and in the future! Clean up the past fiascos responsibly and don't make the same outrageous mistakes moving forward. LANL could be putting its attention on better issues, such as climate remediation. The Cold War is over!

Joe Danna

The greatest risk is that the barrels will explode without venting. The released tritium will not alter the measurable global concentrations of tritium in the environment. There is no risk from the released tritium.

Erich Kuerschner

While I agree that it there is the risk that the "the barrels will explode without venting ",

Joe seems to think we can/should continue to expose others to low level risks of radiation, it being better to cause cance in a way in it is impossible to directly link it to LANL, than to expose those that are responsible for the existence of the material in the barrel. I say let LANL bear the risk, not the public at large.

Paul White

There are some pretty smart scientists up there, they need to get on it. For one, it could be transferred to other containers and then shipped away from population centers? Might cost a little more but they need to think outside the box. Or in this case outside of the container.

Stefanie Beninato

We have coronavirus and now LANL wants to release radioactive material into the environment? Really? And how come they do not know the effectiveness of the filtering system they will use? It sounds like when one PR person told me that the half life of plutonium was the time it took to get out of the stack!! I guess LANL and the federal government think we are stupid. Where is Alan Webber in protesting this discharge?

Ann Maes

I don’t trust the agency on how it will reduce the amount of tritium that’s released. I don’t trust the EPA and I don’t trust LANL!

Dee Finney

Can't this be released somewhere else? We have had enough exposure to radioactive waste here in the national sacrifice area.

jodi odland

Crazy and irresponsible to expose the public

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