Apr 17, 2008
SANTA FE – A forum on closing Material Disposal Area G Wednesday night grappled with one of the most nearly impossible tasks of cleaning up legacy waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Under the current schedule and under penalty of a legally binding agreement, LANL and the Department of Energy are supposed to find a way by the end of 2015 to close out a complex disposal area that has slowly accumulated nearly one million cubic yards of exposed clothing, equipment, and other junk and materials contaminated by radioactivity or chemicals or both.
“At its current state MDA-G doesn’t pose a risk,” said Dave McInroy, LANL environmental program director, who made the central presentation, “but we don’t know what risks it may pose in a future state.”
The forum was sponsored by the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board (NNMCAB), an advisory group that is chartered by the DOE to provide input on environmental issues at Los Alamos.
While the meeting was related to a formal Consent Order between the state and the laboratory as well as its institutional managers, officials of the New Mexico Environment Department, the main regulator of that agreement, did not attend.
Earlier in the week a federal audit revealed that DOE officials have significant doubts that the cleanup can be accomplished on time because of budget limitations.
Marissa Stone, spokeswoman for the New Mexico Environment Department, said the state had informed the advisory board that the department would not be attending.
“We informed the CAB in advance we would not be attending because of its letter to the Department of Energy,” Marissa Stone, spokesperson for NMED said this morning.
The letter expressed NNMCAB’s willingness to cooperate with DOE’s intentions to renegotiate aspects of the consent order, based on its current budget shortfall.
NMED has taken the position that there will be no changes to the Consent Order as it stands.
The forum did not deal with that controversy, but focused on the job at hand.
The solution for closing out MDA-G, as indicated in the presentations and discussions, must be made to work for a thousand years, a fraction of the active life of some of the radioactive materials that must be held in check – and considerably longer than the life-spans of all but a few institutions in human history.
The disposal area, MDA-G, is not one just one thing, as McInroy made clear. The area breaks down into a welter of types of units, pits, shafts, trenches, below and above ground, and with various combinations and conditions of regulatory responsibilities.
By September 2008, LANL and the Department of Energy are scheduled to deliver to the New Mexico Environment Department a formal document known as a Corrective Measures Evaluation, which will evaluate ways to go about the job. Sometime afterward, NMED will select a preliminary remedy, and then, after a round of public input, a final one.
Although McInroy acknowledged reluctance to discuss the preliminary options for closure at MDA-G, he summarized current information about the two poles of a possible solution and the difficult balancing propositions that remain to be calculated.
The range of remedies discussed in public runs from some kind of surface barrier or cover system (a cap), potentially combined with various degrees of engineered containment structures and assorted treatments of excavated materials, to a comprehensive retrieval and evacuation of the waste for off-site disposal.
In terms of time and money there is a huge difference between the simplest engineered cover and the most comprehensive total-removal scenario.
The cap and related activities would cost “in the neighborhood” of $64 million, would require the shortest amount of time to accomplish would have the lowest risk to workers and the public, according to McInroy.
By contrast, removing and hauling the million cubic yards of waste would cost as much as $15 billion, and take as long as 20 years, 70 million miles of transport. While this option would also have the highest risk of workers and the public, it would also eliminate long-term risks.
Comments during a question and answer session focused on the immense scope of the project and ongoing disagreements about the adequacy of the laboratory’s systems for monitoring contaminants in the groundwater.
Bob Neill, retired director of the Environmental Evaluation Group that provided independent analysis of DOE proposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, noted that previous analysis has concluded that “institutional control is lost beyond 100 years and caps fail in 500 years.”
In answer to questions that were raised about human intruders over vast periods of time, Tom Longo of DOE said, “All tough policy decisions must involve intangibles.”