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In a desolate canyon in northern New Mexico, a black puff of dust and smoke rises up from the ground following a quick flash. It takes about a second and a half for the loud boom and rush of air to catch up.
Explosives experts at the nation’s premiere nuclear laboratory just blew up 85 pounds of waste left over from some of the experiments Los Alamos National Laboratory conducts on improvised explosives and other terrorist threats.
Some of the high explosive waste also comes from the work scientists do to bolster national security and to ensure the stability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
Critical is how lab officials describe the work — and the detonations needed to get rid of the waste.
They’re asking New Mexico regulators to modify the lab’s sweeping hazardous waste permit so the detonations can continue.
Los Alamos lab has been the site of nuclear weapons research, chemistry and physics studies and work with hazardous and radioactive materials since its beginnings as part of the Manhattan Project, which developed the world’s first atomic bomb.
Almost since its inception, the lab has been using controlled detonations to get rid of high explosive waste.
Under the current permit, those explosions have been covered under an interim status.
“We can continue under interim status if that’s what the state wants, but it’s far better for us to have a public discussion about it, get it out in the open and make sure people know what we’re doing,” Dennis Hjeresen, the lab’s division leader for environmental protection, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
“We have to be able to convince the public and the regulators that it’s safe and it doesn’t have an impact on human health or the environment,” he said.
Environmentalists and watchdog groups have voiced concerns about the safety of the detonations and the residue that’s left behind, but lab officials contend the high explosive waste is nothing more than the sum of organic compounds.
The waste can be granules or plastic-like chunks that come in various shapes and sizes. Once the explosives are poked, prodded, pushed and pulled as part of the lab’s research, they are no longer predictable and must be properly disposed of.
Rather than trucking the material off site, lab officials say the safest alternative is keeping it on lab property and blowing it up.
“None of this is radioactive,” Hjeresen said. “The constituents of explosives are pretty organic. What happens when you blow up organic chemicals is they turn back into the organic molecules that you started with — nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen.
The lab samples the air during detonations and monitors the soil, storm runoff and wildlife at its two open detonation sites. That data is shared with the public online.
As part of its permit proposal, Los Alamos plans to close and cleanup two other old detonation sites and one open burning area on its 41-square-mile campus.
The state Environment Department started reviewing the voluminous permit modification proposal earlier this summer, said John Kieling, acting chief of the agency’s Hazardous Waste Bureau.
“It’s a pretty bulky document,” he said.
As state regulators comb over the proposal to determine whether it meets New Mexico’s hazardous waste requirements, the public has until mid-September to submit comments. A public hearing can also be requested once a draft permit is prepared.
It could be next fall before the permit language is finalized and approved, Kieling said.
In the meantime, the lab plans to continue with the detonations on an interim basis.
The lab conducts around 30 detonations a year, with each one averaging about 60 pounds. Lab officials keep the explosions small so residents in White Rock — about five miles away — won’t be inconvenienced by the noise.
Hjeresen said over the last several years, the lab has also reduced the volume of waste it has to treat. Part of that is the result of cleaning up old materials left over from the Cold War era.
Environmentalists have suggested alternatives to the detonations, such as moving operations to more remote areas elsewhere and using massive vessels to contain the blasts.
However, the national laboratory is home to some high-tech facilities and some of the top explosive experts. Moving the scientists and their equipment isn’t practical.
Using containers for the detonations would work. Much of the lab’s explosive research is done in those kinds of vessels. But they’re expensive — on the order of at least $500,000 — and they’re only good for seven to 10 uses, Hjeresen said.
“You can do a lot by adding money to processes, but the question is do you get anything more in terms of protection of human health or the environment by going down that route than you would by the way you’re doing it,” he said.
“We’ve come to the conclusion our best alternative is to make sure we’re not blowing up anything we don’t need to.”
While state regulators expect to make recommendations for improving the permit modifications, lab officials say they believe what the Environment Department is looking for is within what the law requires.
“Their job is to protect the public,” Hjeresen said of the agency. “Ours is to protect the public and execute the mission, and those aren’t incompatible.”