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  consent order and become a tougher negotiator for New Mexico,” he said.