Gaps remain as document retrieval project winds down

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By Roger Snodgrass

POJOAQUE  – The project was not yet over before the push began to extend it.

Project leaders prepared this week to put the finishing touches on a decade-long search for health-related historical records at Los Alamos National Laboratory, naming a panel of experts to participate in a final review of a draft report.

But immediately, the composition of the panel was criticized and gaps were found, some of them catalogued by the report itself.

“What we have done is a long way from a detailed dose reconstruction,” said Project Director Tom Widener of ChemRisk, Inc., “but we were hoping to direct resources and attention to those things that warrant a closer look.”

The draft report expresses confidence that “enough information exists to reconstruct public exposures from the most significant of LANL’s releases, to a degree of certainty to allow health professionals to judge if significant elevations of health effects should be expected or measurable.”

More than 100 people gathered at the Buffalo Thunder Resort Thursday night to hear the latest findings and discuss the future of the project. Besides a large contingent of people directly involved in the project and in a federal program providing compensation to sick nuclear workers, the audience included local residents and employees, activists and a diverse group of interested members of the public from Santa Fe and Española.

 Public reaction

Immediately after the presentation about the draft report, a letter from Ken Silver, a public health researcher at Tennessee State University was read.

Silver been deeply involved in the subject of environmental releases at LANL, but was unable to attend the meeting. His letter other materials that were read during the meeting found shortcomings in the draft report, including failure to respond to a document about a 1969 incident “in which levels of radiation went sky-high” in a hot cell at the DP West facility.

“Monitoring reports I obtained in 1996 under the Freedom of Information Act had the hand-written notation, ‘These figures should not be recorded on yearly reports,’” Silver noted in giving an “F” to the LAHDRA draft report on this point, that LAHDRA accepted the official position that the room specified was not in use at the time.

A number of people in the audience criticized the review panel for a lack of diversity. The members were in attendance and were introduced for the first time at the meeting.

A staff member for Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., proposed that Silver be added to the review panel. Udall was very active on this issue, going back to his tenure as a Representative for New Mexico’s Third District, which includes Los Alamos.

Widner said he looked forward to an early meeting with Silver that had already been scheduled.

“We were unable to find anything that answered the question,” he said. “We were unable to answer all the questions that came up.”

Charles Miller, who represents the project’s sponsors, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said “We want advice from everybody.”

He added there were few women or minorities in this field and that he had contacted some of them but they were not available.

It will be up to the review process to decide what future steps are taken and what specific issues, if any, are examined more closely.

Miller said at this point there isn’t a budget for additional work.

 Findings old and new

The Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment Project has combed through many pages in a systematic attempt to review the history of operations at LANL and to identify the documents that shed light on releases of chemicals and radioactivity into the public sphere or the environment since 1943.

Findings from the report were shared in public meetings from early on, so much of the material in this briefing was somewhat familiar, particularly one of the major conclusions, as the draft puts it, that “airborne releases to the environment from Los Alamos operations were significantly greater than has been officially reported or published to the scientific community.”

New material in the current report flagged by Widner included an analysis of tritium releases, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that is used in nuclear weapons, hot cell and facility operations, where hazardous materials were handled and additional information about other radionuclides, including radioactive lanthanum.

Some documents may never be found, the draft study admits, because they have been lost or destroyed, while others will never be read because they are illegible and many of the participants are no longer alive.

LANL management responded with an announcement calling the study an important document and saying that it was taken seriously.

“We’re in the process of carefully reviewing the draft final report and will submit a technical response during the 30-day comment period,” laboratory officials stated in a prepared statement.  “We will also request an independent peer review by the National Academy of Sciences.”

The statement emphasized the lab’s progress in identifying contaminated areas and cleaning up the legacy wastes from the Manhattan Project and the Cold War. “We’ve dramatically improved pollution prevention practices in our ongoing activities. Today, our air, soil, water, and wildlife sampling programs conduct more than 200,000 analyses each year, and our regulators and oversight are very strong. We’re now one of the most extensively monitored sites in the world.”

A laboratory spokesperson was asked after the meeting if the laboratory would ask that the CDC pursue any of the open questions. He said that was not known at this point.

Also after the meeting Joe Shonka of Shonka Research Associates, a contributing author of the report, said that LAHDRA was intended to be a historical study.

“Almost everybody is already dead,” he said. “How many people do you know who were alive in the ’40s?”

At the same time he added, these kinds of projects are intended to build or rebuild trust in activities having to do with nuclear materials.

“There is a lot of distrust and some of this may help the public to trust that scientists know what goes on.”

People affected by fallout from the Nevada Test Site and the Marshall Islands have been studied and, in some cases, compensated. Shonka noted people in New Mexico and particularly the impact on the hapless civilians, who were caught up in the first atomic explosion at Trinity Site, have not been fully evaluated.

An contribution of the LAHDRA study was to add to an understanding of the fallout from the Trinity test on July 16, 1945, but the authors of the draft report confess that too much remains undetermined about the event to put it in perspective.