The pace of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s legacy waste cleanup drew sharp criticism Wednesday from two state lawmakers who argued regulators should toughen oversight and consider suing federal agencies to spur quicker action.

The lab has made five shipments of higher-level nuclear waste this year to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad and hopes to move that number to 30 per year, with the aim of removing all of the lab’s legacy waste by 2027.

A U.S. Department of Energy official presented the figures to the state Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Committee on Wednesday.

“So we’re looking to greatly increase the rate of shipment,” said Steve Hoffman, who oversees the agency’s environmental management field office in Los Alamos.

But state Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, called that volume far too low, especially when compared to Idaho sending 100 to 150 waste shipments to WIPP each year.

“I frankly find that unacceptable,” Chandler said.

Chandler asked state Environment Department officials what their strategy was to prod the Department of Energy to accelerate cleanup.

“We’re pushing for that progress, to not slow down at all, to make sure the cleanup continues,” replied Stephanie Stringer, director of the Environment Department’s Resource Protection Division. “So making sure that we’re pushing very, very hard and demanding a robust cleanup plan.”

Chandler said she wanted to know how the agency planned to enforce demands.

One avenue is legal action, she said. The Idaho National Laboratory is getting its nuclear waste removed at a faster rate after the state of Idaho sued the federal government.

Stringer acknowledged it was disappointing to see other states such as Idaho getting prompter waste cleanup, but she hinted that litigation — while not off the table — is not high on the list of strategies.

“We’re exploring a lot of options,” Stringer said. “Whether it [wrangling] goes to that level remains to be seen.”

State Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said the state is losing ground on cleanup because an agreement between the state and the Department of Energy was weakened four years ago, and now more waste will be generated with pit production.

The lab’s massive legacy waste was produced before 1999, including during the Cold War and the Manhattan Project. Much of the waste is transuranic, meaning it has human-made elements heavier than uranium, giving it a half-life of more than 20 years.

In 2005, the Department of Energy and the state forged an agreement, known as a consent order, to speed cleanup that had gone at a glacial pace until then.

But in 2016, the consent order was revised under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who sought more relaxed environmental oversight.

Hard deadlines and prescribed penalties for missing them without just cause were replaced by “milestones” or goals that are more easily renegotiated. Running late on a project can still draw a fine, but that’s become relatively rare.

Critics say that has allowed the Department of Energy to avoid budgeting funds to ensure projects meet deadlines — causing the legacy cleanup to drag on years longer.

Steinborn said if the federal government is allowed to go at its own pace and spend as little money as it wants to clean up waste, the state will get what it asks for.

“We owe it to our state and our citizens to demand the utmost urgency [and] speed with protecting our environment in return for what we do for the country,” Steinborn said.

The state must put teeth back into the consent order, its main source of leverage, Steinborn said.

“I would like to see us rip up the [2016] consent order and become a tougher negotiator for New Mexico,” he said.

(5) comments

Khal Spencer

If the paper is going to compare Idaho National Lab and LANL waste, it ought to explain the kinds of waste we are talking about. Not all waste was created equal.

Barbara Harrelson

We in Santa Fe need to contact Sen. Peter Wirth and Rep. Brian Egolf and demand that they add their voices to put pressure on DoE and get something done about this unacceptable situation--and to consider a lawsuit if the government continues to stall.

joe martinez

The nuclear waste buried and stored in Los Alamos does NOT pose a threat to the population. The wacko community will never be satisfied with the work done at LANL and waste is just an excuse. The issue is RISK. The risk of repackaging and transporting to other sites is higher than leaving it in place but the consent order has been signed and we go ahead. The amount of money for remediation is allocated in DC based on perceived risk. The risk is clearly higher at Hanford so they'll get a bigger allocation than Los Alamos. Remediation of waste is only one of thousands of activities funded in DC. It competes with many more important activities such as coronavirus. Funding for remediation is limited. I can't say in polite company what I think of setting a completion date on a project with so many unknowns. ...or what I think of Nuclear Watch and other similar groups.

Jay Coghlan

Nuclear Watch New Mexico has been saying rip up the 2016 Consent Order ever since it was signed in June 2016. It was initially negotiated under the anti-environment Susanna Martinez Administration behind closed doors by Katie Roberts, division chief at the New Mexico Environment Department who previously worked for LANL, and Christine Gelles, first manager of the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos environmental management field office. It was signed by then-NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn, who resigned to become Executive Director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, thereby revealing his true environmental colors. Further, Roberts and Gelles then both went on to work for the same DOE contractor who is part of both the prime LANL operating contract and the cleanup contract. Were the best interests of New Mexicans represented while negotiating the 2016 Consent Order? Heck no!!!

To give this greater context, Los Alamos Lab is asking for a $950 million increase to $2.9 billion for its nuclear weapons programs for fiscal year 2021 (which begins this October 1), primarily for expanded plutonium “pit” bomb core production which will cause more wastes and need for cleanup. In contrast DOE is asking for a 46% cut to cleanup, from $220 million to $120 million, in part to help pay for more nuclear weapons. That’s what the 2016 Consent Order gets us!

Further, DOE has claimed that there are only 5,000 cubic meters of wastes left to be cleaned up at LANL and that cleanup as a whole is more than 50% complete. The truth is that there are more than 200,000 cubic meters of radioactive and toxic wastes sitting in LANL’s largest waste dump (“Area G”) alone. DOE’s and LANL’s plan is to “cap and cover” and leave those wastes permanently buried in unlined pits and trenches above our groundwater, three miles uphill from the Rio Grande. LANL use to falsely claim that groundwater contamination was impossible. Sadly, we now know there is serious groundwater contamination with more to come on the way.

Kudos to State Senator Jeff Steinborn for say that the 2016 Consent Order should be ripped up. Nuclear Watch New Mexico wholeheartedly agrees. Further, we argue that the state legislature should take up this very issue in next year’s legislative session!

Jay Coghlan

Nuclear Watch New Mexico

Devin Bent

A half-life of more than 20 years? Well, yes, but we might call this an under-statement. "Much of the waste is transuranic, meaning it has human-made elements heavier than uranium, giving it a half-life of more than 20 years." Pu-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years.

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