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LANL seeks new hazardous waste permit

A shipment of transuranic waste heads from LANL’s transuranic shipping facility to WIPP in 2012. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Los Alamos National Laboratory is seeking the renewal of its hazardous waste permit, a process that could be contentious as critics point to what they say are unresolved problems at the northern New Mexico lab.

The state Environment Department and the lab began holding meetings this month to hear public comments and educate people about the lab’s cleanup efforts, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported Monday.

Lab officials say it’s too early to comment about the permit renewal, but state officials say guidelines for cleaning up and managing old and new waste at the 40-square-mile site will remain essentially the same.

The permit is up for renewal for the first time since 2010.

Over the past decade, plutonium operations were suspended for several years while officials reviewed safety procedures. The lab also was blamed for inappropriately packing waste that was shipped to the federal government’s only underground repository, resulting in a radiation release, the closure of the repository and a delay in cleaning up Cold War-era waste from defense sites around the nation.

State and federal reports also have cited safety violations, such as mislabeled waste, inadequately trained personnel, and equipment and buildings not properly maintained.

The state has never revoked or suspended the lab’s hazardous waste permit and instead has worked with the lab on corrective measures.

The lab will continue to use shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, open burning and occasional detonations to get rid of waste generated over the past two decades. That would include the increased radioactive waste that would be created as part of a plan for the lab to ramp up production of plutonium pits, which are key components for the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

The cleanup work also includes the continued removal of what is known as legacy waste that was discarded at the lab before 1999.

“Obviously, there’s a lot to clean up. We do that in a very structured way,” said Frazer Lockhart, a regulatory program manager for N3B, the company hired in 2018 to handle the legacy waste.

The goal for finishing the legacy cleanup is 2036, which means the permit and cleanup contract will have to be renewed again before the work is completed.

The work was given a 20-year timetable in 2016 when the consent order was revised under then-Gov. Susana Martinez to replace hard deadlines for completing projects with more flexible goals called milestones. Fines are meted out less often and the lab has more leeway to renegotiate the deadlines, which critics say is dragging out the effort.

“There’s no end in sight,” said Charles de Saillan, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.