Report: LANL to end on-site radioactive waste disposal at Area G in 2017

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Plutonium amount reported > Annual environmental report indicates lowest plutonium detected in recent years

By Tris DeRoma

A Los Alamos National Laboratory environmental report released has revealed that by Oct. 1, 2017, the lab will cease disposing of low-level radioactive waste on site. 

“The strategy for both low-level radiological waste and mixed low-level waste is to minimize its generation and to dispose of all newly generated waste off-site… No new, on-site disposal capacity will be developed,” read a statement in the report. The report also mentioned that the lab plans to dispose of  low-level waste at “Area G” by Oct. 1, 2017.  

The report also indicated that for 2015 the amount of plutonium detected in the air was nine attocuries per cubic meter, which the lab categorized as the lowest it’s been in recent years, because there was not much soil activity at the site. The lab was shipping the low-level waste from Area G to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad. That stopped when an improperly packed barrel shipped from the lab exploded at the plant in February 2014. The WIPP plant is due to resume partial operations in December.

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear disarmament and environmental organization, was pleased to hear the news. 

“It’s the end of an era that started in 1943. There isn’t any place along the Pajarito Plateau that should be a dump,” Mello said. “It’s good to have that in the rearview mirror.” 

The purpose of the annual report is to monitor the impact lab activities have on the environment and the residents of northern New Mexico. The report, called the “Los Alamos National Laboratory 2015 Annual Site Environmental Report,” also details how LANL has complied with federal and state standards for disposal and cleanup at the lab.  

LANL also indicated in the report how the lab will take steps to reduce waste on every level. 

“Reduction in the amount of waste generated reduces long-term liabilities and reduces the potential for the disruption of critical mission work from waste disposal capacity issues,” according to the report. 

Those steps included: establishing “laboratory-wide waste reduction goals,” expanding the site cleanup and metals program and the “Green is Clean” program. The Green is Clean program verifies waste created in radiological areas is “clean” of radiation, qualifying it to be disposed of in the Los Alamos County landfill. 

Other findings include the New Mexico Environment Department granting 38 sites cleaned and remediated. However, 10 of the sites can only be used for industrial activities. 

Mello called that “regrettable.” 

“It’s regrettable, because no one can guarantee that part of the Pajarito Plateau will only be used for industrial purposes forever,” Mello said. “It’s a lesser cleanup standard. There will be a tendency to say ‘we’re done’ and then be able to cross that site off and then possibly get performance bonuses that there are incentives for everybody to call a ‘halfway clean-up’ good enough. It’s also the case that maybe sometimes all anybody can do. The cat may be truly out of the bag.” 

The report also concluded that Los Alamos’ water supply wells were clean of radionuclides and other chemicals from past and present lab operations.

The chromium plume beneath Sandia and Mortandad Canyons and the RDX site at Cañon de Valle remain the only “notable” groundwater contamination areas. 

The report also contained a gloomy global warming forecast for northern New Mexico. “Current climate modeling indicates that northern New Mexico is on a trajectory of continually increasing temperatures, with no concurrent long-term increase in precipitation,” according to the report. “The laboratory and other researchers predict that many native conifer trees in the Southwest will be dead by 2050. Projected climate changes and mortality of trees will lead to increased loss of forest cover, continued high risks of severe wildfire and higher soil erosion rates in the laboratory region”. Climate predictions in the report indicated that between 2001 and 2010, annual average temperature readings increased above 49 degrees Fahrenheit “which is a significantly higher value than in recent decades,” according to the report. 

For the near future, LANL plans on fighting the changes by supporting and implementing fire safety practices, minimize soil erosion and supporting the local population of native trees.