POJOAQUE — Los Alamos National Laboratory on Thursday committed to moving the equivalent of 17,000 drums of radioactive waste that’s been stored above ground for decades off lab property by 2014.
But lab officials also said they can’t meet their commitment to clean up other lab hazardous waste by 2015.
Moving the waste drums, which caused consternation and gained international press attention during last summer’s Las Conchas Fire as flames headed toward Los Alamos, is a top state priority.
But the longer-term cleanup goal, established in a 2005 agreement known as a “consent order,” has been suspect for some time because of a shortfall in federal money for lab cleanup work.
“They have historically been underfunded for this work,” Jim Davis, director of the New Mexico Environment Department’s Resource Protection Division, said in an interview Thursday.
Congress this year provided $189 million for cleanup at Los Alamos, $169 million less than the Obama administration said it needed to stay on schedule to meet cleanup milestones.
“It’s not possible for DOE to meet the 2015 consent order,” George Rael, the Department of Energy’s assistant manager of environmental projects at Los Alamos, said at a public meeting Thursday night. He said he hoped the state would agree to re-evaluate the 2005 deal setting 2015 cleanup deadlines.
But Davis said the state won’t consider renegotiating the consent order on broader cleanup work until it sees progress on getting the 3,706 cubic meters of above-ground waste off part of the lab known as Area G.
The state wants “to see a trend” that the drums are going away as promised before it considers renegotiating the 2005 deal, Davis said.
Lab and state officials used a meeting before the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board in Pojoaque to roll out changes in the lab’s cleanup approach, which are being driven in part by changes in state priorities and in part by the lab’s struggle to respond to funding shortfalls.
The lab’s commitment to remove the radioactive waste stored above ground by 2014 meets a request made by Gov. Susana Martinez, who made removal of the waste a top priority after the Las Conchas Fire burned to within 3½ miles of Area G. The waste has been kept there in drums and other containers stacked in temporary structures above ground.
M. Lee Bishop, the federal manager for transuranic waste at Los Alamos, noted that the above-ground waste “caused a tremendous amount of public concern” during the big fire.
He said the feds agree with the state environmental regulators that moving the waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad is the lab’s highest cleanup priority.