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What price a LANL cleanup? Somewhere north of $1.2B, says NMED secretary

SANTA FE, N.M. — This story has been corrected from an earlier version to provide an accurate amount of the federal dollars LANL is expected to receive for environmental cleanup next fiscal year.

POJOAQUE – The federal Department of Energy has estimated that it will cost $1.2 billion to clean up all the radioactive and hazardous waste at Los Alamos, but New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn says he believes that amount is “far too low.”

Flynn, speaking at a meeting of a Los Alamos National Laboratory citizens advisory board here Thursday, called the DOE’s cost projection “a bare minimum.”

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State Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn (Journal File)

Flynn said the parties involved need “to have an honest conversation about the extent of the problem.” LANL is expected to receive $181 million in federal funds for environmental remediation in the next federal budget year.

“We’re not talking about peanuts,” he said.

And Flynn said any assumption that the state Environment Department will accept the cheapest so-called cap-and-cover contamination remedies from DOE “is misplaced.”

Flynn’s comments came as part of the first public discussion of plans to revise the 2005 legal agreement between the state and DOE over cleanup of LANL’s legacy waste dating back to the 1940s Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bomb.

Under the 10-year-old consent order that ended a legal fight between New Mexico and the feds, cleanup of the lab’s 40-square-mile site was supposed to be completed by this year. But that didn’t come close to happening and the two sides are preparing to negotiate revisions.

Flynn told the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board that he won’t start talks on a new consent order until his department and DOE reach a final agreement on another matter – settlement of dozens of violations by DOE in the 2014 leak of a radioactive drum at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant at Carlsbad that has shut down the nation’s underground nuclear waste storage facility. The drum had been erroneously packed with a combustible mix at Los Alamos.

The state initially levied more than $54 million in penalties against DOE and its contractors for the permit violations. The April settlement calls for DOE to funnel more than $73 million toward New Mexico road improvements and environmental projects. But disagreement over money and timing has stalled finalization.

Flynn said Thursday the state wants to retain its “leverage” in the settlement talks and won’t move onto the consent order until there’s a final deal over the WIPP leak.

Flynn noted that, among all the weapons complex sites around the country, Los Alamos is the only one without a projected cleanup completion date. Flynn added that, while LANL needs to have a new schedule to help in securing cleanup funding from Congress in the competition with other sites, trying to include a final cleanup completion date in a new consent order would be based only on speculation.

‘Campaign’ plans

As the Journal reported recently, the NMED wants the revised consent order to focus less on investigation and characterization of waste, moving instead to a series of discrete, start-to-finish “campaigns” to attack various cleanup problems at the lab, with priorities set by criteria such as risk to people or the environment and available funding.

There have been 10 years of investigation, said Flynn, “and we need to move beyond that.”

The order should also include more flexibility based on technological advances or new findings – such as an expanding chromium plume that was discovered in the aquifer below Los Alamos after the 2005 agreement was developed – and there should be annual meetings with DOE over those kinds of issues, said Flynn.

Doug Hintze, manager of DOE’s Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office, agreed with the “campaign” approach and listed 14 possible such projects, including “the biggie” – the lab’s Area G waste dump where waste has been buried in shafts and pits. DOE has already proposed a cap-and-cover plan with a vapor extraction system there.

As for as progress at LANL so far, Hintze said that 1,300 of 2,100 “solid waste management units” at Los Alamos have been dealt with, 139 ground water monitoring wells have been installed and 1,001 “deliverables” – such as reports and other milestone documents – have been provided.

Hintze wouldn’t confirm Flynn’s $1.2 billion DOE estimate for completion of cleanup, but promised to release what he called a “baseline” that is being developed. He said the consent order needs “realistic” assumptions and expectations moving forward, adding that it does no good to commit to more improvements than the lab receives funding for.

‘Unrealistic department’

During a public comment period, Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico said Hintze shouldn’t ask the public to be “realistic” about the LANL cleanup because DOE itself is a “thoroughly unrealistic department” with a history of blown deadlines and blown cost estimates. He said that what LANL gets for cleanup is small compared to what’s being spent by DOE to develop “smart” new nuclear weapons.

Coghlan said NMED needs to be “in the driver’s seat” in dictating cleanup work to DOE and that NMED had “eviscerated” the 2005 consent decree by granting more than 100 milestone extensions. The intent of the 2005 agreement was to “make it hurt” when the lab didn’t meet requirements, Coghlan said.

Flynn responded that he agrees that NMED needs to be in the driver’s seat and that his administration has fined DOE more than any agency in the country. But he said it was his job to make sure the lab is clean, and to protect people and the environment, not to punish the lab.

Joni Arends of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety said the lab’s plan to deal with the expanding chromium plume in the aquifer was not given proper public notice and that a full-blown environmental impact statement should be required. “DOE needs to go back and start this process all over again,” she said.

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