New Mexico demands more of US when addressing nuclear waste

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The U.S. Energy Department has rolled out its 2021 priorities for cleaning up tons of toxic waste left behind by decades of bomb-making and nuclear research at scientific installations and defense sites around the country.

The list includes a goal of sending 30 shipments from the birthplace of the atomic bomb — Los Alamos National Laboratory — to the federal government’s underground waste repository in southern New Mexico.

Some elected officials and watchdog groups say the list is another indication that New Mexico is on the back burner when it comes to cleaning up legacy waste. They’re also raising concerns that new waste generated by Los Alamos when it ramps up production of key nuclear warhead components will need to be cleaned up and could further sideline decontamination efforts.

State Rep. Christine Chandler, whose district includes the once secret city of Los Alamos, described the federal government’s lack of attention to Los Alamos cleanup requirements as beyond disappointing.

“As the LANL mission expands and the facility takes on ever greater responsibilities for the DOE’s national security mission, enhanced attention to lab cleanup is imperative. Instead, the environmental management priority list places LANL on the back burner,” she said.

Chandler also voiced her concerns during a legislative meeting last fall in which lab officials testified about the pace of shipments. She and others pointed out that the Los Alamos shipments were a fraction of the dozens of shipments sent to the repository from Idaho and other sites.

Discontent about the pace of cleanup has percolated for years, spanning presidential administrations on both sides of the political aisle.

Most recently, the state of New Mexico alleged in court documents that the government is failing to hold up its end of an agreement meant to guide long-term cleanup at the lab. Critics had warned that the latest iteration of the consent order that was adopted in 2016 did not have clear milestones and lacked consequences while the previous version from 2005 included unrealistic assumptions and lacked firm standards.

“The Department of Energy’s pattern of setting low expectations and minimally exceeding them is not success in New Mexico’s book,” state Environment Secretary James Kenney told The Associated Press in an email. “On behalf of the people and environment of New Mexico, we demand more — and that’s exactly what the lawsuit we filed last month is intended to compel the federal government to do.”

Greg Mello with the Los Alamos Study Group said at 30 shipments per year, it would take at least 30 years to remove existing waste that includes radioactive tools, clothing, gloves and other debris.

“So far New Mexico political leaders appear somewhat naive about what it will take to get the legacy transuranic waste removed from LANL any time soon. It will take a lot more than words,” he said. “Thirty years is just a euphemism for never.”

There’s about 400,000 cubic meters of legacy radioactive waste on lab property, with most buried in disposal areas around the sprawling campus. Some areas have been excavated and closed. There’s about 3,500 cubic meters of legacy waste stored above ground that will eventually be shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

Pointing to past missed deadlines, watchdogs have said the Energy Department has no coherent plan or budget to remove the waste on a reasonable schedule.

N3B, the company that manages the 10-year, $1.4 billion legacy cleanup contract for the DOE, argues that strides have been made. The company highlighted work being done to address a plume of chromium contamination and the removal of contaminated soil from several sites.

As for the Cold War-era waste stored above ground, N3B reported making five shipments to the repository in fiscal year 2020. Officials said some work had to be delayed due to inclement weather. The pandemic also affected some operations across the U.S. nuclear complex.

Sixteen shipments have been made so far this fiscal year, with more than half being loaded at a new facility that allows for year-round work and joint shipments of both legacy and new waste.