Roger This: Separating Fact From Fiction In The Clean-Up Plan

TRU wastes from 1979 to 1987 is contained in 33 lined shafts in the eastern portion of Area G. Radiation in these shafts is significant, requiring remote handling, but the total volume of waste amounts to only a few cubic meters. From the 2016 Clean Up Lifecycle Estimate Summary. Courtesy photo
Los Alamos Daily Post
The schedule for the legacy cleanup of radioactive waste and contamination at Los Alamos National Laboratory headed into extended overtime last week.
Department of Energy managers now project a completion date that would stretch into another generation, as far as 2040, 25 years past the previous completion date, and two-and- a-half times longer than the original project was intended to last.
Officials from regional communities with a stake in the overall project of hazardous waste cleanup at Los Alamos returned from a lobbying visit and Environmental Management Cleanup Workshop last week. They brought with them a draft summary of a long-awaited Clean Up Lifecycle Estimate (LCE) and were obviously relieved at last to have something in writing that spells out the current dimensions of the clean-up program, even if it was only a summary and every other page was stamped “DRAFT.”
The new bottom- line cost is now expected to come in between $2.9 billion and $3.8 billion, but to quote one of the officials involved, “Nobody believes that,” because nobody knows exactly what kind of problems may be encountered. Additionally, nobody knows how much money Congress will appropriate – next year, much less 20 years down the road – which directly affects how long the project will take. At the beginning and end of the summary, the document states that it is based on “realistic expectations of annual funding for the remaining work.”
These so-called “realistic expectations” make the conveniently simple assumption that the future will deliver a steady-state appropriation based on the current budget numbers of about $185 million a year, with no allowance for inflation. The numbers include an annual 15 percent “cost avoidance” reduction from more efficient contracting, as well as speculative and unspecified technological efficiencies.
These assumptions are accompanied by a formidable list of risks, including scheduling uncertainties that have undermined past efforts. Notably, “Funding levels in recent years are lower than assumed in prior planning documents,” so the project could be said to start with justifiably pessimistic expectations. More daunting are natural and manmade disasters, including wildfires, floods and unthinkable accidents like the burst containers at WIPP that will continue to impact nuclear cleanup on a national scale for years.
Other risks are circular. For example, the scope of work has been identified based on guesswork about what the final remedy might turn out to be, that is, what approach would be taken to solve the environmental problem. “The LCE presumes a final remedy ahead of regulatory approval for purposes of establishing a schedule and estimated costs,” the document indicates. “Actual final remedies will be identified in coordination with stakeholders/tribal governments.”
Once again, as with the first clean-up effort, the plan postpones the most onerous task of cleaning and securing Material Disposal Area G, the lab’s primary hazardous waste dump, until the very end, and then it assumes the job will be finished by removing transuranic waste, mostly plutonium-tainted materials, and installing an engineered cover for long term monitoring. This presumed final remedy may be wishful thinking.
The preferred alternative, dubbed the “cap and cover” approach, is a partial and provisional solution that is also one of the cheapest options. Cap and cover has not been approved by the New Mexico Environment Department, and it has been strongly opposed by environmental stakeholders in the community since it first came up.
In the first section of the LCE draft summary that describes the overall scope of work, the document primarily alludes to the legacy waste in Area G: “An estimated 5,000 cubic meters of legacy waste remains,” the document states, a misleading “fact” that appeared in an early article and then was repeated in newspapers, a wire story and on television news around the state.
The information was quickly challenged by Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a watchdog organization that has carefully followed waste disposal plans at the lab for many years. In a press release, Nukewatch distinguished between the estimated 5,000 cubic meters of legacy waste mentioned in the LCE, and “approximately 150,000 cubic meters of poorly characterized radioactive and toxic wastes” at Area G, 30 times DOE’s estimate in the LCE.
It is one thing to make up facts and numbers to fulfill bureaucratic requirements that will enable a project, but another to express imaginary facts and numbers out of context in a way that trivializes the enormity of nuclear cleanup at the lab.
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