Area residents expressed concerns this week about the potential health hazards of releasing radioactive vapors into the atmosphere from four barrels of tritium-laced waste stored at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Most who spoke during a virtual forum Tuesday hosted by the National Nuclear Security Administration complained the Los Alamos lab had not discussed its plans with the public about venting the tritium waste containers and wasn’t fully considering the public health risks.
“There needs to be a greater analysis of the potential health and environmental effects of releasing radioactive tritium into the atmosphere,” said Virginia Necochea, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. “We know tritium is very dangerous when inhaled. There’s no safe level of tritium exposure.”
Tritium is a radioactive hydrogen isotope that is found, both in natural and human-made forms, in water, soil and the atmosphere. It is generally only harmful when ingested in high doses in food and water, and it can increase the risk of cancer in some people, according to the Health Physics Society.
However, some medical research groups, such as the National Academy of Sciences, contend any amount of radiation exposure can risk damaging tissues, cells and DNA, potentially causing genetic mutations, birth defects and cancer.
The National Nuclear Security Administration has said venting the containers of Cold War-era waste is necessary to relieve built-up radioactive hydrogen in the headspace so the containers can be safely handled and shipped to a commercial storage site.
The agency has set no date for the release but said it will happen before winter.
Officials hosting the forum reiterated the agency’s past statements that the radioactive releases will be no more than 8 millirem to stay within the annual 10 millirem limit for the site. A millirem measures radiation exposure.
They said it’s a small amount compared with the 400 millirem the average New Mexican is exposed to per year.
These statements failed to reassure most residents at the forum.
“We’re already getting 400 millirem just from living here,” Deborah Reade said. “That’s not just to say that the 8 millirem is so much smaller. The 8 millirem is added to the 400 millirem. And that’s added for life.”
Releasing the radioactive vapors during the novel coronavirus pandemic is “especially irresponsible,” Reade said.
Not only can the novel coronavirus cause physical ailments, such as respiratory difficulties, if you contract it, but it’s causing emotional stress that can lower people’s tolerance to toxins, Reade said.
Several Pueblo people spoke against the releases, saying it could harm the communities near Los Alamos.
“There’s so much that we’ve had to endure and sacrifice as a result of this laboratory’s mission,” said Beata Tsosie-Peña, program coordinator for Tewa Women United. “Because of the racism, we’re not even at the table. We’re notified about these things after the fact, or it’s a crisis response to have to respond to these things at the last minute.”
Tina DeYoe asked why the lab felt a sudden sense of urgency to vent containers of tritium waste that have been stored there for more than a decade.
She also said it’s unknown how much of the radioactive vapors will be captured by filtering systems.
The application submitted last year to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the release states the lab will use a molecular sieve system and other filters to catch as much as half of the vapors. But it offered no exact estimates.
“The public has not seen rigorous analysis of alternatives” to a release, said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
Coghlan said he suspects venting the containers is the cheapest solution.
The Nuclear Security Administration hosted the forum after three New Mexico congressional delegates — U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján — wrote a letter calling for more transparency and public participation.
“We’re tired — we don’t want it,” said Carol Miller, who added she spent 50 years in public health. “You create these dangerous situations, and the solutions are about as dangerous as what was created.”