Study says LANL's water project 'in progress'
ROGER SNODGRASS Monitor Assistant Editor
An independent review of the laboratory's groundwater protection activities released this morning will not be the last word in the ongoing conversation, but it did offer a foundation for future discussion.
At a public briefing today at Fuller Lodge, the chairman and vice chairman of a select committee of the National Academies of Science discussed the panel's findings and recommendations in the report, "Plans and Practices for Groundwater Protection at the Los Alamos National Laboratory."
Among them, as committee chairman Larry W. Lake said, was the reality that the laboratory's water project is a work in progress.
"I've always viewed this as a midcourse correction, more than a redirection of a major effort," he added, speaking for himself.
Asked to quantify the magnitude of correction, he said, "A 30 percent correction or so." Again, he emphasized, "That's not in the report."
The burden of the project includes not only the hazardous nature and sometimes haphazard disposal of the contamination on the site from more than six decades of heavy industrial duty as a nuclear weapons laboratory, but also the technical challenges and uncertainties associated with tracking, containing and cleaning it up.
That this is an arid environment in which water is an especially precious resource, as the committee recognized, adds a high degree of urgency to the effort.
Unscrambling the omelet
The NAS report quoted from a final review to LANL by the External Advisory Group in 2005, remarking on the lab's accomplishments in understanding the hydrological complexities of the site, stating that "the many findings help unscramble the omelet that is the Pajarito Plateau."
The study's optimistic conclusion was that the job of completing the groundwater protection program at Los Alamos can be done. In that spirit the committee offered its help, often softening the criticism with qualified explanations.
Rod Ewing, the committee vice chair from the University of Michigan explained the tone of the report is typical of the NAS and the product of the many stages of review that they go through.
Four "overarching" findings were emphasized.
These included what the committee sees as a need for a better understanding of geochemistry, which deals with how contaminants interact with materials in the earth.
Secondly, the report calls for the program to use a more precise and descriptive method of accounting for the site's inventory of contaminants. The committee recommends a mathematical tool known as "mass balance," that begins with quantified inputs and sources of contaminants.
"It's like balancing your checkbook," explained Lake. "What goes in minus what comes out should equal what's still there."
A third major finding has to do with uncertainty itself. "LANL needs to do a better job of describing the uncertainties in its groundwater protection program to both scientific and public audiences," the authors stated.
Finally, the committee said it was willing "to accept LANL's motto, 'The World's Best Science Protecting America,' at face value," but found many reports to be typical of Department of Energy publications that are not peer-reviewed.
The committee's recommendation is that key portions of the work should be summarized and published in peer-reviewed scientific journals to demonstrate the scientific merit of the program.
Yes and No
"In several instances, the committee's short answers to (the questions in its task statement) were negative," the authors wrote. "Such findings do not necessarily indicate major deficiencies in LANL's groundwater protection program, but rather that the program is incomplete."
For example, the committee was asked to evaluate the laboratory's groundwater monitoring plan, first in terms of how well it follows good scientific practice, and secondly, the plan's adequacy for providing early warning and sufficient information for responding to the risk of contamination.
The short answer given for the first question about scientific practices was "yes and no," and the short answer to the second question about early warning and response is "a qualified 'no.'"
The report discussed gaps in LANL's conceptualization of contaminant pathways as a scientific shortcoming.
"The plan is not adequate to provide early identification of potential contaminant migration with high confidence," the authors wrote.
These points were unpacked by discussing the laboratory's strength in understanding the water-aided infiltration of contaminants from sources in wet canyons into the surface materials, migrating down to zones of perched water, in the vadose (or intermediate) zones and moving horizontally and downward according to regional geological structures.
"However," the report adds, "there is a lack of understanding of the interconnectedness of pathways between basins ... (and) detailed knowledge needed to predict subsurface flowpaths does not exist."
The laboratory has emphasized the study of liquid wastes, because they are known to be most mobile, but the committee recommended the solid wastes not be neglected in future efforts.
"Solid wastes ... and certain contaminants deemed by LANL to be essentially immobile (e.g. plutonium) have the potential for impacting groundwater in the future," the study observed. "The committee received little information that would provide assurance that these sources are well understood."
In answer to some of the controversial issues raised by community groups about drilling methods and reliability of sampling data, Lake said, "Message received," noting recent changes at the laboratory on both counts.
To Bob Gilkeson, the geologist whose reports and white papers brought many of these concerns to light, Lake added, "And well done."
Ewing said that the process itself, utilizing a workshop format involving presentations from a variety of perspectives, could be helpful as a model in the communication process.
DOE and LANL responses
Matt Johansen, the environmental program officer for the National Nuclear Security Administration, supervising the laboratory's work on the groundwater project said the Department of Energy is serious about the recommendations.
"DOE welcomes the report, coming halfway through our program. By my count, the report includes 17 recommendations and additional sub-recommendations," he said, which will be given attention.
Sue Stiger, LANL's associate laboratory director for environmental programs released a prepared statement that said the laboratory was pleased to receive the evaluation from "a well-respected, outside, independent source."
The statement continued, "We are pleased that many of the committee's recommendations are consistent with work required under the New Mexico Environment Department Consent Order, which guides the Laboratory's environmental cleanup activities."
[Read The National Academies Press Release here.]
[Read the full report here.]