It’s rare when one of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s watchdog critics is flabbergasted in a positive way.
That’s what happened last week when news broke that the Biden administration announced its budget proposal would increase U.S. Department of Energy funding for environmental cleanup at LANL by 32%, up from $226 million now to $333.5 million, in fiscal year 2022.
The amount allocated for cleanup of the lab’s longterm “legacy” hazardous waste – radioactive and otherwise – has been stagnant for many years, even as LANL’s overall annual budget has ballooned to more than $3.7 billion. Last year, the Trump administration even tried to cut the cleanup allocation, by nearly half.
The items that need attention include radioactive material that was buried in shafts over the years since the Manhattan Project, drums of transuranic waste, such as contaminated clothes and gloves left over from plutonium work, and a plume of chromium in groundwater beneath Los Alamos.
The immense size of the job of environmental remediation at Los Alamos can be measured by the years projected to complete the work. The latest federal budget plan calls for spending up to $8.4 billion, possibly through 2090.
Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico – who long has pushed for removal of buried waste at LANL over a cheaper “cap and cover” plan – initially said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the proposed funding increase. He then added, “Perhaps better put, (I’m) flabbergasted.”
The New Mexico Environment Department has sued DOE over an alleged “continuing pattern of delay and noncompliance” with a state/federal consent order on cleanup. NMED Secretary James Kenney said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the new budget numbers mean “the DOE is listening to New Mexico at last.”
New Mexicans hold varying views on LANL. It brings thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to a poor state, but critics oppose the lab’s nuclear weapons mission and its high cost. Still, everyone should be able to agree that removal of the hazardous waste left behind by the lab’s decades of weapons work should be a priority for the federal government.
So it’s good news that the Biden administration is stepping up and showing support for LANL cleanup where it counts – in the federal budget.