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Nuclear Watch to sue over LANL cleanup problems

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Nuclear Watch New Mexico on Wednesday put the federal Department of Energy and the private contractor that manages Los Alamos National Laboratory on official notice that it will file suit over the lab’s failure to meet cleanup goals established in a legally binding 2005 consent order.

The notice mailed Wednesday notes the lab missed a December final deadline for completion of Los Alamos clean-up work and hasn’t asked for an extension of the now-expired schedule that was set a decade ago.

That makes DOE and Los Alamos National Security LLC (LANS), the lab’s private manager, liable for civil penalties and subject to injunction, says the notice by attorney Jonathan Block of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

The work of manufacturing plutonium "pits," the triggers for nuclear weapons, is planned to resume at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Courtesy LANL)

The work of manufacturing plutonium “pits,” the triggers for nuclear weapons, is planned to resume at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Courtesy LANL)

“We are putting the weaponeers on notice that they have to clean up their radioactive and toxic mess first before making another one for a nuclear weapons stockpile that is already bloated far beyond what we need,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuke Watch, a nonprofit watchdog group. He was referring to DOE’s recent preliminary approvals for changes at Los Alamos, including new underground facilities, to accommodate re-starting production of plutonium “pits,” the triggers for nuclear weapons.

A DOE spokesman said Thursday the agency “does not comment on formal threats of litigation.” A statement from the New Mexico Environment Department called Nuke Watch’s claims “baseless.”

The Environment Department has plans to revise the 2005 cleanup consent order with DOE and LANS, a private consortium that includes Bechtel and the University of California.

The order was a result of the Environment Department’s 2002 finding that decades worth of radioactive and hazardous waste at Los Alamos posed an “imminent” threat to health and the environment. The state issued an order requiring LANL to investigate its 40-square-mile property for waste. DOE and the lab argued their own cleanup schedule was better and sued.

The 2005 consent deal ending the dispute laid out milestones toward “fence-to-fence” cleanup by 2015, enforceable by financial penalties. But getting enough funding for the work – federal dollars have been mostly in the range of $185 million to $200 million annually – became increasingly difficult, and it was clear in recent years that the lab would come nowhere near meeting deadlines set in the 2005 document. In November, state Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said he believes it will cost much more than DOE’s own $1.2 billion estimate to finish the job.

Nuke Watch’s Coghlan said Wednesday that cleanup at Los Alamos “continues to be delayed, delayed, delayed,” despite plans to spend a trillion dollars over 30 years to rebuild the U.S. nuclear weapons force.

But the Environment Department, while planning to update the cleanup consent order, says DOE and LANS haven’t violated the order as alleged by Nuke Watch. Flynn said Wednesday, “These are nothing more than baseless claims being peddled by a radical group that insists on wasting everybody’s time with empty threats and manufactured disputes, which helps them grab headlines and juices their fundraising efforts.

“If a suit is filed, and the Environment Department becomes involved, we would insist on collecting any and all labor and legal costs from the (Environmental Law Center) to reimburse New Mexico’s taxpayers for the costs resulting from this groundless and frivolous action. The Consent Order remains in effect.”

Nuke Watch also has been pushing for a formal public hearing process – which Nuke Watch contends is required and allows interested parties to submit materials and question witnesses – as a revised consent order on cleanup is developed. Flynn has said that would cause delays and promised opportunities for public comment instead in other settings, such as meetings of a citizens advisory board.

Flynn also has insisted that before a new consent order is negotiated, DOE must come to final agreement with the state over plans for $73.5 million that the federal agency agreed to pay for a radioactive leak that has shut down the nation’s nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad. Two years ago, a waste drum from LANL, improperly packed, breached at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and contaminated the storage facility.

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