Environmental concerns persist about nuclear cleanup at LANL

Officials at one of the country’s largest nuclear weapons laboratories are repeating their promise to focus on removing Cold War-era pollution left over from decades of research and bomb-making.

Los Alamos National Laboratory (Albuquerque magazine photo)

But New Mexico environmental officials and monitoring groups remain concerned about the pace, and the possibility that the federal government has dramatically reduced its environmental responsibility at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The US Department of Energy has estimated that it will be 2036 before clean-up in the laboratory – which played a key role in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II – is complete. Federal officials acknowledged during Thursday night’s meeting that the date has not changed, but they are reviewing whether the new risks will reinforce the need for more funding and more time.

Michael Micolanis, chief of the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management at Los Alamos, addressed questions about the 2021 independent audit that found the agency’s responsibility for environmental cleanup exceeded more than half a trillion dollars for the past fiscal year, and is growing. This includes the undervalued liabilities at Los Alamos of more than $880 million.

Mikolanis emphasized that a recent review revealed new information that increased clean-up commitments beyond what officials previously understood.

“I certainly can’t say yes or tell you no that the date is being changed, but obviously as the scope increases…either we will need additional funding to do that or the dates are extended,” he said. “We are currently evaluating that. We have not made any decision.”

The Department of Energy (DOE) is facing a legal challenge from New Mexico over defining and meeting the parameters of its existing clean-up agreement with the state, which was signed in 2016. State officials found the federal government’s plan for the previous fiscal year incomplete.

Monitoring groups said it wasn’t until the state filed a lawsuit in February 2021 when the Department of Energy proposed increasing the lab’s cleanup budget by about a third. Before that, budgets were flat, with groups saying the Department of Energy had no incentive to ask for more funding.

“The conclusion I take from it is that the New Mexico Department of Environment gets a lot more stick than it gets from a carrot in terms of getting the lab and the Department of Energy really committed to a thorough clean up,” said Jay Coughlan, executive director of the Nuclear Monitoring Corporation. New Mexico.

Despite the pending litigation, the state wants to continue working with federal officials on moving the needle when it comes to addressing chromium pollution plumes, removing tons, Chris Kachis, director of the Environmental Department’s Division of Resource Protection, said during the meeting. of contaminated soil and other projects in the laboratory.

“We agree that we don’t feel like the cleanup is moving as fast as we’d like to see it, but with that said, we don’t want to get carried away by the process,” Kachis said.

Some elected officials and other critics have also raised concerns about how the federal government’s plan to increase production at Los Alamos from plutonium cores used in the country’s nuclear arsenal will lead to additional waste that will add to disposal obligations.

During the meeting, officials indicated that the National Nuclear Security Administration has funding for a site-level environmental review of operations. While they declined to provide more details, advocates have argued for years that the environmental consequences and cost-effectiveness of in vitro processes deserve further scrutiny.

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