When I came to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2000, I spent my first year walking the lab’s largely undeveloped 40 square miles, inventorying the environmental impacts of the Cerro Grande fire. That fire devastated the community and the laboratory. Scorched trees littered the landscape, and silt from extreme flooding choked streams and filled canyons across the fire-ravaged landscape. I was struck by the impact of the fire and how vulnerable we were. At the same time, I recognized the lab’s critical role in protecting our environment and proactively offsetting the fire’s impacts.
In the years since then, I have worked to become the division leader for Environmental Protection and Compliance. I am driven to do this kind of work, which comes naturally to me. In my childhood in the 1970s, when environmental laws were being passed, my parents instilled in me the importance of being an environmental steward. I have been actively involved in environmental stewardship and sustainability efforts since college – it is part of who I am. As division leader, I strive to ensure we fulfill our commitment to environmental stewardship through sampling and monitoring our environment, identifying opportunities for pollution prevention, and supporting the laboratory’s sustainability efforts – and evidence shows we’re doing very well.
That might surprise some people. In the past 25 years, the lab has been very successful in environmental stewardship, despite public perception to the contrary. The truth is, Los Alamos National Laboratory is one of the most closely monitored places in New Mexico, with reporting requirements under more than two dozen different federal and state environmental laws, permits and other orders. With that kind of accountability, our achievements and challenges in environmental stewardship are transparent for all to see. That includes the good news and the bad: cleaning the past, being successful today, and planning to create a sustainable future.
For example, my division works with the lab’s wildland fire management program to ensure that we are in compliance with all requirements, modeling fire behaviors, promoting forest health and working to prevent wildland fires.
As for radiation hazards – perhaps the public’s biggest fear about Los Alamos – the levels are actually quite low. In our most recent environmental report, painstaking studies showed that radiological doses to the public from laboratory operations were less than 1 millirem per year, with health risks indistinguishable from zero. For comparison, I receive an annual dose of 40 millirem because I live at an elevation of 6,700 feet, and I received a 13 millirem dose when I had a recent mammogram. During 2019, the radioactive emissions of airborne radiological materials from all laboratory sources were also negligible, at about one one-hundredth of the legal limit.
The same is true for the lab’s radiological impact on food produced in the vicinity and on wildlife. We sample food products from various locations around the laboratory, in surrounding communities, and from regional background locations. The dose from eating local or regional foods, including crops, eggs, milk, tea, deer and elk, is about the same as what the rest of the world experiences and in line with naturally occurring radiological material. The takeaway is that contributions from the laboratory are too small to even measure.
Part of our goal to create a sustainable future includes conducting ongoing research to understand the impact of the laboratory as we implement our important national security mission while being stewards of the environment. In my division, we have access to hydrologists, chemists, physicists, engineers and so many others who work to identify creative and innovative solutions to complex environmental problems.
We work to sustain our environment in other ways, too. The lab works with the National Park Service and the Department of Energy to stabilize and repair Manhattan Project National Historical Park properties at the laboratory as part of our commitment to preserving cultural sites. We also implement work restrictions in areas where threatened and endangered species and their habitat can be found.
I have lived in Los Alamos for 20 years, gotten married and started a family here. My commitment to my work at Los Alamos National Laboratory is deeply personal. Preserving this environmentally rich national laboratory, with its blue skies, abundant wildlife and rich cultural history, is central to my lifelong goal to help create a sustainable future for my children’s generation and for generations to come – not just here in Los Alamos, but for New Mexico, for our nation, and for the world.