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Los Alamos National Laboratory is asking the state of New Mexico for more time to meet some mandated cleanup milestones as it faces shifting priorities and uncertainty about its environmental cleanup budget.
The northern New Mexico lab would be able to speed up the shipment of radioactive waste from lab property to a permanent disposal site if allowed to shift resources to higher priority work, George Rael, head of environmental management for the federal government’s Los Alamos Site Office told the Albuquerque Journal.
The changes in lab cleanup priorities come amid discussion among the state, the lab and members of the public regarding the lab’s 2005 agreement on environmental cleanup milestones.
New Mexico Environment Department secretary David Martin made that the thrust of his presentation to the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities last week.
The state and the lab initially viewed the agreement, which established legally binding targets, as a way to pressure the federal government into providing cleanup money. However, getting money for the work has become increasingly difficult.
Among the projects for which the state has already granted a two-year delay is cleanup work in an area of Los Alamos Canyon, which is downstream from an early lab dump site.
Money that would have gone to the canyon work can now be spent shipping radioactive waste from the lab to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground disposal site in southeast New Mexico.
Officials with the state Environment Department said they support the change because getting containers of waste moved has become a priority of the state since last summer’s Las Conchas fire. The containers are currently stored above ground in temporary tent-like structures.
Jim Davis, head of the state Environment Department’s Resource Protection Division, called the waste “vulnerable.”
“It’s potentially combustible or potentially disbursable if the containers are breached,” Davis told the Journal.
Critics said there are other options. “The question should be, ‘Why can’t you do both?’” asked Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque.
The Obama administration requested $360 million for lab cleanup work in the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Congress has not yet taken final action, but the House and Senate indicate a desire to spend less this coming year.
The lab has been given tentative guidelines suggesting a budget of $185 million, just over half the initial request, Rael said.
Hancock argued that other money in the federal budget could be shifted to the program to meet the state’s milestones.
The budget struggle is expected to remain an issue in subsequent years.
“We agree with Secretary (David) Martin and the state Environment Department that removing above-ground transuranic waste from the Laboratory is our most important environmental cleanup priority,” said Michael Graham, LANL Associate Director for Environmental Programs. “We sent a record number of TRU waste shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant last year and are gearing up now to even further accelerate our waste repackaging and disposal efforts.
"We also agree that protecting the area’s surface and ground water is extremely important to all of us, and we’re committed to being protective of our water resources through the laboratory’s program of water sampling and monitoring.”
A report earlier this month from the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General concluded that cleanup agreements around the country like the one in New Mexico, intended to bolster budgets by creating mandatory cleanup milestones, might be backfiring.
Taken together, the agreements have created a massive nationwide funding obligation at nuclear sites that the federal government may be unable to meet in future years, according to the Inspector General’s analysis.
It remains unclear if the state’s near-term willingness to give the lab some breathing room on deadlines this year might extend to bigger deadlines in the future.
The biggest deadline is the cleanup of the lab’s Area G waste complex that, under the lab’s deal with the state, must be done by the end of 2015.
State officials acknowledge meeting that deadline will be difficult, but Davis insisted the state isn’t interested in renegotiating.
“That is still the deadline,” he said.