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Consent order milestones at risk

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By Roger Snodgrass

Officials of the Department of Energy now acknowledge that they are likely to default on some of the deadlines that have been agreed upon between the state, the federal government and the managers of Los Alamos National Laboratory.The chief operations officer for environmental management said in a letter responding to a new report by the inspector general that some milestones will be missed regardless of the approach that is taken.“Moreover, some of the relevant agreements were negotiated many years ago, with incomplete knowledge by any of the parties of the technical complexity and magnitude of cost  that would be involved in attempting to meet requirements,” James Owendoff continued in his response, which also notes other issues – “including contractor performance, overly optimistic planning assumptions and emerging technical barriers” – as having contributed to missing promised dates in the schedule.The inspector general (IG) said 54 of 56 of the consent order milestones were “to have been met” by the end of the fiscal year 2007 (Sept. 30).Fiscal year 2008 milestones, on the other hand, are already behind schedule.Specifically, the report said, delays in removing waste and facilities in Areas L and G of the lab’s waste disposal site suggest that deadlines established by the consent order for these areas will not be met.Area G is more formally designated as the Low-Level Radioactive Solid Waste Storage and Disposal Facility. Known as one of the largest and most difficult cleanup jobs, the close-out of Area G is the final task under the consent order.Area L is the primary location for packaging, transporting, storing, treating and/or disposing of chemical, hazardous and low-level mixed waste generated at LANL.Owendoff in his response to the critical report stated that because of improved performance by LANL management and an approved baseline budget, he now “feels confident” about working with NMED to reschedule the cleanup at the laboratory.After reviewing the report, New Mexico Environment Secretary Ron Curry issued a statement agreeing with parts of the IG report, and particularly the part that calls for increasing funding for LANL cleanup.“While it is clear that the DOE IG understands the importance of meeting clean up commitments, I’m not convinced that DOE management shares that understanding,” Curry said in a statement.  “The report states that DOE ‘believes it now possesses the tools to work with the regulator to reorder work packages.’ That is simply wishful thinking on DOE’s part that it can wiggle out of its commitments.Sen. Pete Domenici, who criticized the DOE’s budget request during an appropriation committee hearing, said the report affirmed his concerns.“A lack of funding leads to delays, cost increases and fines,” he said in a press release Tuesday.  “The $100 million shortfall in the FY2009 budget is unsuitable and unacceptable, but probably the situation the NNSA will be in for years to come,” Domenici said.He suggested a compromise to work on the most immediate risks, while he attempts to direct more funding to the Los Alamos cleanup.But there is no indication that NMED will compromise.“The State of New Mexico will not renegotiate the Consent  Order,” Curry said Tuesday.The inspector found that the Energy Department had not started decontamination and decommissioning of 58 structures in the two areas as they had planned during 2007, and now does not expect to have the money until 2011.Further, delays in removing the thousands of barrels of high-activity waste from Area G may mean a two-year delay in finishing the remediation work at the site.A 2007 report by the National Academies of Science on Science and Technology Needs for DOE Site Cleanup noted a previous conclusion that the most difficult cleanup sites would include the plutonium processing plants at Hanford, Savannah River and Los Alamos.