NM, lab reach deal on cleanup of radioactive waste

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POJOAQUE, N.M. (AP) — Bowing to pressure from the state, Los Alamos National Laboratory officials said Thursday they would speed up removal of the thousands of drums of radioactive waste that has been sitting on lab property for decades.

But they won't be able to meet some other deadlines in an agreement that calls for the bulk of the lab's legacy waste and contaminated sites to be remediated by 2015.

"It is not possible to meet the 2015 consent order," David Real, the assistant manager for environmental programs at the lab's site office, told the Northern New Mexico Citizen's Advisory board during a special meeting. He said he hoped the New Mexico Environment Department would be open to renegotiating some aspects of that cleanup order.

Real blamed congressional budget cuts, technical challenges and the shift in priorities for its lagging progress on clean up.

NMED officials said they would not commit to renegotiating any cleanup deadlines until they see how well the lab delivers on its promise to remove what is the equivalent of 17,000 drums of toxic waste stored aboveground on a 63-acre radioactive landfill that dates back to 1957.

"We are going to watch this process very carefully," said Jim Davis, resource protection division director for NMED. "... We have to have some evidence that this is in fact working" before the state makes any policy decision about whether to renegotiate the consent order.

The toxic waste made national headlines this summer when a massive wildfire raged near the premier nuclear facility for more than a week, at one point lapping at the edges of lab property.

And while lab officials downplayed the danger at the time, associate environmental programs director Michael Graham said the fire made it clear the presence of the waste posed a "significant risk to the public."

After the fire, Gov. Susana Martinez identified removal of that waste as a top priority, and her administration has been pushing lab officials to commit to speeding up shipment of the waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico.

The special meeting was called to review the new cleanup plan for the so-called transuranic, or TRU waste, that has been dumped on the site for years. Much of the waste is contaminated trash like clothing and gloves, lab officials say.

While it is not considered high level radioactive material, it can be highly active and must be processed, handled and shipped carefully. Officials estimate it will take nearly 600 shipments to WIPP to clear the site. Last year, a record 171 shipments were made.

As part of the speedup agreement announced by Environment Secretary David Martin, 3,706 cubic meters of legacy waste will be removed by June 30, 2014. Lab officials also agreed to come up with a new schedule for cleanup of other legacy waste at the site, including 33 underground waste storage shafts.