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LANL taking $40M hit in budget bill

Nuclear SpendingSANTA FE, N.M. — Members of a citizens advisory board for Los Alamos National Laboratory got some bombshell news at a Santa Fe meeting Wednesday afternoon.

In the “omnibus” budget bill now before Congress – and which must pass to avoid a government shutdown – funding for cleanup of long-term radioactive and hazardous waste at Los Alamos takes a $40 million hit.

LANL received $225 million for cleanup in the most recent budget year. The appropriations bill intended to fund the federal government through September 2015 would provide $185 million, a reduction of more than 15 percent.

The cut comes after a radioactive waste drum packaged by the lab ruptured in February while stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only deep geologic repository for nuclear waste, near Carlsbad.

The leak, the result of a hot chemical reaction in the drum, has shut down WIPP, and costs for reopening the facility have been estimated at as much as a half-billion dollars. Critics of the nation’s weapons complex argue that the total cost will actually be much more.

Last week, the state Environment Department fined LANL and WIPP, both federal Department of Energy facilities, $54 million for hazardous waste violations.

No specific cause for the WIPP leak has been confirmed, but a prominent theory focuses on wheat-based kitty litter that was mixed with nitrates in the transuranic waste drum as it was processed at Los Alamos, potentially causing the reaction that breached the container.

Meanwhile, the congressional budget bill would give WIPP a huge funding increase. Its budget would jump from $220 million to $320 million, to help with the post-leak remediation work.

At Wednesday’s meeting of the Northern New Mexico Citizens’ Advisory Board, Jay Coughlan of lab watchdog group Nuclear Watch New Mexico urged the board and the public in general to “push back hard” against a cut in LANL cleanup money.

He said cleanup of Los Alamos’ legacy contamination shouldn’t suffer because of mistakes made by the lab’s current for-profit contractor, Los Alamos National Security LLC. He said the budget numbers show a “somewhat punitive” shift of money from Los Alamos to WIPP.

Coughlan also said the country is spending a trillion dollars to modernize its nuclear weapons and could spare a very small portion of that to sustain the environmental cleanup effort at Los Alamos.

Don Hancock of the Southwest Information and Research Center, a longtime observer of WIPP operations, was also at Wednesday’s meeting. Hancock said in an interview Thursday that his review of Congress’ budget deliberations shows that it was the House that cut LANL cleanup funding to boost the budget at WIPP. It appears Congress “is kind of writing a blank check to WIPP and taking away from Los Alamos,” Hancock said.

But WIPP recovery “is going to take a lot more money and a lot more time than DOE is telling Congress,” he maintained, while Los Alamos continues to have substantial cleanup issues – including chromium contamination that has reached the local aquifer.

He said proposed LANL cleanup funding called for $28 million to go toward work on chromium in groundwater, but only $4.6 million for that purpose remains in the budget bill, even as the state has ordered LANL to replace a costly testing well. That’s a problem for public health and safety “that had nothing to do with the WIPP leak,” Hancock said.

“I would argue that the LANL contractor and WIPP contractor are the ones who need to be penalized and pay the fines,” he said.

During discussion at Wednesday’s meeting, advisory board member Stephen Schmelling of Santa Fe said he had the sense that there has been little urgency at WIPP about getting the facility operational again while nuclear waste “is piling up around the country.”

J.R. Stroble, of DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office and head of the transuranic waste program, disputed that. He said WIPP workers are “putting in a lot of hours” and sacrificing time with their families on remediation work.

Job woes?

A budget cut for cleanup also could exacerbate job losses at Los Alamos. The lab’s processing of transuranic waste for delivery to WIPP is already on hold because of the February leak.

And there are also concerns among local subcontractors about DOE’s recent decision, in the wake of the WIPP leak, to shift execution of cleanup work at Los Alamos from the National Nuclear Security Administration to the department’s Office of Environmental Management. LANS will continue to do the cleanup work short-term while DOE prepares and awards a new contract over the next 18 months or so.

Liddie Martinez, of the LANL Major Subcontractors Consortium of more than 35 companies, said at Wednesday’s meeting that about 46 percent of the consortium’s work and 250 local jobs are in environmental cleanup. She expressed concern that local firms that were awarded contracts under NNSA about 18 months ago will have to rebid or could lose the contracts as the shift is made to Environmental Management.

But Jack Craig, director of DOE’s Environmental Management Consolidated Business Center, said he didn’t believe there would be “a major job impact” from the transition.

The local contractors are also concerned that a relatively new program of awarding contracts through a central DOE procurement office in Kansas City is making it harder for local businesses to get work at LANL.

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