Los Alamos National Laboratory’s long-term environmental cleanup program would be cut by $100 million under the U.S. Energy Department’s proposed budget for 2021.
The agency’s preliminary “budget in brief” shows a proposed 46 percent reduction in funding for the lab’s environmental management, which handles cleanup of legacy waste generated before 1999, including during the Manhattan Project and Cold War.
A mile-long, highly toxic chromium plume under the Sandia and Mortandad canyons and the massive radioactive waste buried in Area G are the results of shoddy disposal that occurred around the lab before environmental regulations were enacted in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, the Energy Department wants to increase spending by 25 percent on nuclear weapons to help meet the Trump administration’s goal of having LANL and Savannah River Site in South Carolina produce a combined 80 plutonium pits a year by 2030.
Watchdogs called the proposed cuts in LANL’s cleanup program unprecedented.
“To have a 46 percent cut in Los Alamos cleanup is stunning,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “We’ve got nuclear weapons on steroids and cleanup is the poor stepchild subject to the whims of DOE.”
In a statement, the Energy Department said protecting the public, workers and the environment remains the top priority in Los Alamos.
The 2021 budget request “reflects an effective allocation of available resources, given other national priorities, to continue making strong progress on the Department’s cleanup mission,” the agency said. “It focuses on completing cleanup activities under the 2016 consent order, maintaining safe operations, [and] continuing successful management of groundwater contamination.”
Sen. Tom Udall said he wanted to see a detailed explanation of the proposal.
“Such deep cuts to LANL’s cleanup budget would seem to be an insulting and dangerous proposition — especially when the Department of Energy is asking the state of New Mexico to take on more nuclear waste at WIPP [Waste Isolation Pilot Plant] above and beyond what the state has already agreed to,” Udall said in a statement. “I will continue to fight against misguided budgets that shortchange community and environmental safety.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich called the proposed cuts “appalling” and said he would push for waste cleanup to remain a top Energy Department priority.
“President Trump’s budget short changes New Mexicans,” Heinrich said in a statement. "The cuts to funding for ongoing defense legacy waste cleanup are appalling and shirk the commitment the Department of Energy has made to the people of New Mexico. LANL’s cleanup program must have sufficient resources to ensure all planned restoration and protection efforts remain on schedule and critical milestones are met.”
The 2016 agreement between the Energy Department and the state under former Gov. Susana Martinez — known as a consent order — paved the way for such a massive funding cut, Coghlan said.
This consent order allows the agency to create whatever funding level it wants for cleanup without worrying about meeting hard deadlines, he said, arguing that the state must come up with a more enforceable order like the one crafted in 2005.
“If we were still under the 2005 consent order, it would be difficult for DOE to sort of lowball the cleanup because it would’ve had obligations to meet,” said Charles de Saillan, an attorney with New Mexico Environmental Law Center. “Now DOE can do whatever it wants. It’s completely backwards.”
If the Energy Department fails to provide adequate funding, it won’t meet its goal of completing legacy cleanup by 2036, de Saillan added.
State regulators said expectations for long-term cleanup would not change.
“The New Mexico Environment Department will hold the Department of Energy to its legal obligations to fully fund legacy waste clean-up activities, irrespective of any proposed budget reductions,” Maddy Hayden, Environment Department spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement. “Compliance with state and federal regulations is a minimum expectation.”
Little cleanup is likely to get done with such a pared budget because much of the money would go toward covering administrative and payroll costs, said Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety.
Contamination will remain near the regional drinking-water aquifer and other areas of the Pajarito Plateau around the lab, Arends said.
“The Department of Energy is holding the state of New Mexico hostage while bringing in tons of money for weapons production,” Arends said.