A point well taken

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By The Staff

In my opinion, the point made recently by New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry, as reported by the Los Alamos Monitor on March 27 (“Head wants federal agency removed”), is well taken.

First, a little reminder of the competing roles of NNSA/DOE and EM/DOE in the cleanup of legacy wastes at LANL and throughout the U.S. nuclear weapons complex: On March 1, 2000, NNSA/DOE was assigned by Congress the jobs of managing the nation’s ongoing nuclear weapons enterprise, ensuring the availability of nuclear power plants for U.S. Navy ships and working to reduce global threats posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology.

But, NNSA/DOE is mandated to perform tasks related to the cleanup of so-called legacy wastes at the nuclear weapons sites only incidentally to any of these other primary tasks. Instead, cleanup of legacy wastes is assigned by DOE to its Environmental Management (EM/DOE) unit; presently, EM/DOE is expending approximately $7 billion each year out of the DOE $27 billion annual budget, approximately $200 million being spent at LANL (all numbers exclude ARRA funds.)

By contrast, the amount being spent directly on cleanup by NNSA/DOE is small. However, because by statute, NNSA has a paramount role in the management of the nuclear weapons laboratories, it can and does interfere frequently in the cleanup of legacy wastes directed by EM/DOE. At times, the influence of NNSA seems to have paralyzed the cleanup operation.

In New Mexico, such conflicts have led Secretary Curry to make public statements expressing his frustration. For example, at a July 30, 2008 meeting of DOE’s Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board,  Curry  proposed that NNMCAB support the idea that NNSA not fund any more new programs at LANL until first making up for all of the shortfalls in LANL’s cleanup budget accumulated over the past several years. These budgets had all been stipulated in the 2002 Consent Order, a legally binding agreement between the State of NM and DOE.

In fact, the NNMCAB did pass such a resolution (NNMCAB #2008-09) and submitted it as a formal recommendation to the DOE for consideration. This sequence of events is described in the Spring 2009 NNMCAB newsletter, which includes some of Curry’s remarks.

In spite of substantial economic benefits that NNSA/DOE brings to New Mexico, it is always necessary to keep in mind the legacy of toxic wastes that

60 years of nuclear weapons operations at LANL have left behind. Now, 21 years after the end of the Cold War, the need to dispose of these wastes once and for all is pressing. I am pleased to recall here that Lt. Gov. Diane Denish has previously declared herself to be in favor of a vigorous enforcement of the Consent Order.

Ken La Gatutta