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Nuke Watch: Lab cleanup report understates costs, waste amounts at Los Alamos

SANTA FE – Nuclear Watch New Mexico says a highly touted new cost estimate for completing cleanup of decades’ worth of radioactive and hazardous waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory is based more on the likely stream of federal funding rather than the actual cost of dealing with the toxic materials.

Nuke Watch also said the report understates the amount of problem material on the lab campus by failing to note a huge quantity at LANL’s Area G waste dump that is likely ot merely be “capped and covered” rather than treated or removed.

The DOE’s Environmental Management Office in Los Alamos released a report last week that said it could take more than 20 years and nearly from $2.9 billion to $3.8 billion to finish cleanup of materials left over from nuclear weapons production in Los Alamos. It was the most detailed estimate yet on the expense of remediating the lab’s so-called “legacy” waste.

But Nuke Watch, in a news release Wednesday, noted that the report itself says the cost of completing cleanup by between 2035 and 2040 is “based on realistic expectations of annual funding for the remaining work” and that “annual funding is expected to remain constant throughout the duration of the cleanup mission.” Clean-up funding has range from $225 million to $189 million in recent years.

Nuke Watch director Jay Coghlan said the “realistic expectations” language is “code that this won’t be a comprehensive cleanup that would be far more expensive.”

“I think they’re trying to cap and cover the funding,” he said.

Nuke Watch also said the report is “far from honest” in saying that only 5,000 cubic meters of legacy waste remains.

“It intentionally omits any mention of approximately 150,000 cubic meters of poorly characterized radioactive and toxic wastes just at Area G,” Nuke Watch said.

The report says Area G wastes are expected to be dealt with using “engineered cover” which Nuke Watch says would leave the materials permanently buried above the regional aquifer and three miles uphill from the Rio Grande.

Actually removing the buried materials would costs billions of dollars, according to prior estimates.

The report became public through a Santa Fe city government news release in which Mayor Javier Gonzales called it “the first and most comprehensive release of specific plans to complete the cleanup of legacy waste at LANL, and is a big step forward for the people in these communities who want to see a concrete commitment to making progress.” Santa Fe is part of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, which pushes for more clean-up funding and the award of the resulting contracts to local firms.

Coghlan said it was good that Gonzales and the coalition got DOE to release the clean-up plan. “But now they should take the next step and get the Department of Energy to quit being so chintzy with cleanup” and demand that DOE retract the “false claim” that only 5,000 cubic meters of waste are left at LANL.

Wednesday, City Hall provided a statement from the mayor saying, “I believe this has to be a public process, and obtaining and publishing this report was the first step. For the first time, a thorough public vetting is possible. So I look forward to continued input and participation from Nuke Watch, other interested groups, and the public at large.”

Journal efforts to get comment from DOE, its Environmental Management Office and the National Nuclear Security Administration were unsuccessful.

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