Risky business: Safety-minded cleanup of Area B resumes

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By Roger Snodgrass

The site is shaped like a boomerang. Several discrete areas of shallow pits are scattered along a strip of land on the southern side of DP Road.

Buckled pavement covers most of it, where an old trailer park used to sit.

Material Disposal Area B is about to get busy again.  After two years of public silence, with only a few visible changes across the road from a row of small businesses, one of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s major environmental cleanup projects is shifting gears.

Project officials plan a public meeting this week to talk about where things stand and what else they have discovered in the interim devoted to site-preparation and investigation.

The dialogue takes place at UNM-LA Main Lecture Hall, 4000 University Drive in Los Alamos on Thursday from 6-7:30 p.m.

The meeting this week will discuss how the project intends to handle and transport the waste, where the waste will go and how it will be coordinated with the county to keep the vehicular activity off-peak.

“We studied other projects and did more research to understand MDA-B,” Allan Chaloupka said. “We’re ready to go into field investigation. The public is going to see more activity in and around the disposal area.”

Chaloupka is in charge of cleaning up and closing out all of Technical Area 21, an old plutonium processing facility. MDA-B, one of the dumping areas for that facility, is on the western end of that territory and now completely fenced off.

Interviewed in a conference trailer this week at TA-21, Chaloupka’s message was focused on safety and keeping the public informed, as he talked about the job ahead.

In order to mitigate any dangers, the project has spent more time on historical research and interviewing people who worked at the site during the period,

“We’ve done our homework. We talked to the experts and devised procedures and plans to minimize the impact on the public,” Chaloupka said

“We looked at the process history from 1943-1948,” said Mitch Goldberg, MDA-B project manager. “What did they do? What did they put in MDA-B?”

Somewhere in the buried trash there may be an old truck contaminated from the first atomic blast at Trinity site in 1945.

A student researcher looking for gopher holes on the site fell into one of the pits up to his shoulders. He was unharmed. Interviewed later, he said he saw stacked pallets of chemicals.

There are batteries, bottles and glassware and boxes of plutonium-contaminated clothing and gloves.

Plutonium is out there, maybe 200 grams, scattered over the six acres of land. The most recent Environmental Surveillance Report related one of the highest measurements of plutonium 238 to work at MDA-B.

“One occurrence of plutonium 238 greater than 3 (attacuries per cubic meter) was measured,” stated the report. “This was during road construction in preparation for clean-up at MDA-B. The highest quarterly concentration was at this site and was 2.6 aCi/m3,” still well below permissible exposure levels.

In fact, even 200 grams of plutonium is a fairly small amount according to the officials in charge. One high-activity 55-gallon drum, containing transuranic waste for disposal in the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in southern New Mexico would hold three to four times that much.

Plutonium is considered a hazard if it is inhaled or ingested, more than from radiological exposure.

“Chemicals are a more immediate hazard,” Chaloupka said, mentioning in particular the explosive potential of reactive chemicals. “Oxidized ether might have been disposed of, but we have discovered that most of the containers went into a separate pit on the south side of DP west.”

Goldberg said there would be emergency exercises to anticipate any eventuality, coordinated with the laboratory and county emergency operations.

Parts of the parking lot on the south side of DP Road may have to be cordoned off for periods of time, when excavation occurs near by.

Two enclosures will probably be used, a refinement of earlier ideas that called for a single large one. The two moveable structures are expected to be about 30-40 feeet high, 100 feet wide and 170 feet long and will provide more flexibility for the work plan.

As the cleanup is finished in one place, an enclosure would be moved to the next area. If a problem is discovered that requires extra time, the second enclosure can keep moving. Moving would take one day to detach the power and ventilation units, a day to move and a day to reconnect.

A drive along the road behind the target area revealed many preparations in place, including an extended fence line and power stations, as well as an elaborate system of berms, baffles and collection basins to control storm water run-off. Air monitoring stations have been positioned between the site and the business on DP road and portable stations will be placed along the southern perimeter.

Some 50-100 people will be working under the lab’s contract. The excavation part will take about a year, but there will be activity on the site until the spring of 2011. The effort is to meet the cleanup milestone under a Consent Order with the state, due Dec. 31, 2010.