Sep 3, 2008

State still has more questions about RH containers from Los Alamos

By Kyle Marksteiner, Carlsbad Current-Argus Staff Writer
Article Launched: 09/02/2008 09:25:29 PM MDT

CARLSBAD — A group of 16 containers of remote-handled transuranic waste in Los Alamos may not be going anywhere soon.

The drums were one of the key topics of discussion during last week's meeting of the state Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee, held in Espanola and Los Alamos. This month's meeting will be held in Carlsbad. The committee chair is Rep. John Heaton, D-Carlsbad.

The 55-gallon drums of transuranic waste were generated in Los Alamos during the 1970s and 1980s. Remote-handled waste is dealt with at a safe distance, to meet safe-worker-exposure guidelines established by federal law. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad has accepted RH waste from Idaho and Argonne National Lab in Illinois, but not Los Alamos.

Heaton said the drums would be accepted as being eligible for delivery to WIPP under "acceptable knowledge" criteria meaning detailed documented information about the contents of the drums could be used instead of an actual inspection.

"We're coming to conclusions about what is in or isn't in the drums from knowledge that's known about the waste stream," he said.

Negotiations between the New Mexico Environment Department and the Department of Energy over the group of drums have been going on for close to 18 months, Heaton said, and many officials felt the entire procedure was coming to a close.

"The anticipation was that negotiations were at its final stage, but the report released back to the DOE (from the state) contains some 22 to 24 pages of requests for additional information."

State officials, Heaton said, explained that the report was so detailed because it is a one-time approach.

"They said they were trying to do an all-exhaustive list to make sure there's nothing left," Heaton said. "If they don't get it right on the first request and some other items pop up, the acceptable knowledge determination could be denied."

The state elected officials who are members of the committee also listened to updates on the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant from Roger Nelson, chief scientist with the Department of Energy's field office in Carlsbad, and James Bearzi, chief of the Environment Department's hazardous waste bureau.

Because the meeting took place in Los Alamos, much of the discussion revolved around Los Alamos' efforts to clean up radioactive waste.

"Their environmental management budget continues to get cut," Heaton said in defense of Los Alamos. "It seems to me that whoever is putting forth the budget doesn't quite get that it's a really important aspect of what goes on at our national labs."

Heaton also brought several presenters to the two-day event to help his fellow state officials learn more about the energy process, he said.

"I'm trying to bring our committee up to a highly informed level related to energy needs around the country," he said. "My belief is energy will be one of the major economic deliveries for New Mexico in the future. How we develop revenues is an important consideration at this point in our history."

Energy concerns, Heaton said, revolve around three issues: The need to double the amount of electricity produced by 2050, a formula which would have to include nuclear power along with solar and wind; the desire to make sure the United States is doing its part to prevent global warming, even if other countries are not; and the need to eliminate the country's dependence on foreign oil.

The meeting also included a presentation by Ned Elkins, program manager for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Carlsbad, who outlined options for interim waste storage and reprocessing of spent fuel.

[See also Legislators hear interim storage and reprocessing ideas.]

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