The federal government now estimates that it will cost $2.9 billion through the year 2035 to clean up the radioactive and hazardous waste left over from decades of nuclear weapons work at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
That’s on top of $3.2 billion already spent on cleanup work at LANL, according a presentation made Wednesday to the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board, established by the Department of Energy to provide input on environmental issues at Los Alamos.
The projected cost comes to an average of $153 million a year over the next 19 budget years.
Different estimates have been put forward in the past several months about the long-term costs of remediating LANL’s so-called legacy waste.
Ryan Flynn, secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department, said in November that DOE had estimated the cost at $1.2 billion, which Flynn said was “way too low.” In June, Flynn told state legislators that the expense could run up to more than $4 billion.
The latest estimate is also being questioned. Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico said the costs can be limited to $2.9 billion only by using a “cap and cover” treatment for the major radioactive and hazardous waste sites, such as LANL’s Area G, instead of actually exhuming and removing materials now in pits and trenches.
Coghlan said a government study once pegged the costs of removing the material at $29 billion, although watchdogs like Coghlan believe that’s too high. “They high-balled it because they didn’t want to do it,” he said.
NukeWatch came up with a projected removal budget for Area G of $6 billion to $7 billion by extrapolating costs for similar work at a smaller waste site. But Coghlan said there is “no credible estimate” of how much it would cost to exhume and remove the Area G materials.
The cap-and-cover approach would leave about 200,000 cubic yards of waste 800 feet above groundwater and three miles uphill from the Rio Grande, NukeWatch said in a statement.
A spokesman for the local branch of DOE’s Office of Environmental Management couldn’t comment on whether cap-and-cover is part of DOE’s plan but said a more detailed summary is expected to be released in August.
He did provide a statement on behalf of the Office of Environmental Management — Los Alamos Field Office (EM-LA), saying, “This plan details the projected costs associated with current and future cleanup efforts and the schedule for these activities. EM-LA is committed to performing and completing the remaining legacy cleanup work at LANL in a safe and efficient manner that is protective of the site workforce, the public and the environment.”
LANL got $189 million for cleanup in the most recent federal fiscal year budget, but Flynn has argued that $225 million would be more appropriate. Coghlan said DOE’s own data show that, over the next couple of years, only about a sixth of the money will go for actual cleanup, and the rest will go for catching up on worker pensions and “to babysit” waste barrels at LANL that are supposed to go to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.
WIPP has been shut down since February 2014, when a barrel of material improperly packed at Los Alamos breached and contaminated the underground nuclear waste storage facility.
In June, New Mexico and the federal government reached a new deal over how and when to clean up LANL’s legacy waste. The new legal agreement supersedes one from 2005, which was supposed to have required cleanup of the lab’s entire 40-square-mile site by last year. The work didn’t come close to completion as DOE did not receive sufficient federal appropriations to pay for it.
The new agreement sets no deadlines, but calls for a series of “campaigns” directed at specific waste issues, including a chromium plume in the area’s aquifer.
NukeWatch is challenging the deal in court.