Zone of contentionInterest grows on all sides over Area G
ROGER SNODGRASS Monitor Assistant Editor
It is the last milestone on the current list of cleanup chores for Los Alamos National Laboratory.
But as plans are underway to retire a large segment of the lab’s low-level nuclear waste storage site at Area G before the end of 2015, another set of plans is under way to open up a new section for storing nuclear waste well into the future.
The waste management committee of the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board said this week that they planned to have a major forum on Area G in the spring, calling it their number one priority for next year.
The forum would address public interests and concerns about what is buried in Area G and what the site is used for.
The featured expert at the committee meeting was Sean French, a LANL official who gave a progress report on a performance assessment (PA) and composite analysis (CA) that model long-term performance of the disposal facility in terms of risk to humans and the environment.
The performance assessment evaluates radioactive wastes disposed at Area G after Sept. 26, 1988; the composite analysis takes into account all radioactive waste disposed at the facility.
The models are used to calculate various dosages released into the air or into the groundwater under various scenarios and taking into account uncertainties associated with sensitive assumptions.
The analyses use a probabilistic modeling tool known as GoldSim to compute the reliability and relative integrity of the Area G geological and hydrological setting over the 1,000-year period and under the specified conditions for which Department of Energy requires compliance.
Work on updating the previous PA and CA began in 2003, according to French’s presentation. In 2005-6, revisions were released and subjected to an independent technical review.
Last year, more refinements were added to the model to respond to issues in the technical review. The latest results were issued to DOE in June.
“We are waiting to hear,” French said, adding that the revisions indicate that Area G meets its performance objectives.
Among changes in waste management policy under the new managers of the LANL contract, French said LANS was reverting to a previous abandoned fee-for-disposal system in which nuclear waste generating programs pay for their own costs. By next year, all lab organizations will be paying half the costs, on their way to paying 100 percent for full recovery of disposal costs in 2009.
With a wall-to-wall clean-up program underway, Area G is receiving contaminated soil from remediation and decontamination activities at other sites in the laboratory.
Officials at the site said they are working extended schedules to meet demands for removing above-ground TRU waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad.
The Department of Energy held a public forum in Los Alamos on Tuesday, beginning an evaluation of LANL as a possible repository for “Greater Than Class C Low Level Radioactive Waste,” which has no designated resting place yet. If it comes to LANL, Area G is the most likely destination.
Los Alamos is also under consideration for a possible role within a newly conceived Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, as the location for an advanced fuel cycle research facility.
LANL’s role as the nation’s sole manufacturer of plutonium pits, the detonators for nuclear weapons, may well ramp up to dozens of pits a year by 2012, according to the lab’s draft environmental planning document. The heightened activity will produce additional radioactive wastes that will need at least temporary storage.
The growing list of future assignments prompted DOE to revise its previous plans to expand low-level waste disposal by an additional 30 acres – into Zone 4 of Area G.
Officials at Area G said this week that waste efficiencies will enable them to delay expansion for another five years.
After that, “Zone 4 will take us out to 2044,” said Gilbert Montoya, deputy operations manager for environmental waste operations at Area G.
Citizens groups have organized efforts to have Area G closed for the last several years, arguing that the radioactive load carried on the mesa top above the Rio Grande, and drinking water supply wells for Santa Fe and downstream to Texas and Mexico, pose a risk to human health and the environment.
Addressing the challenge
Last year, the citizens advisory board, under its federal charter to make environmental recommendations to DOE, called on the department to address the challenge.
Referring to the board’s previous efforts to mitigate the impacts of additional radioactive materials, one of the board’s recommendations stated, “We do not propose that DOE and LANL install liners in the pits, trenches or shafts at Area G. We propose instead and recommend that the goal be that no more pits, trenches or shafts be dug or constructed at LANL and that no more radiologically contaminated wastes or hazardous wastes are buried at LANL.”
In reply, the Local Area Office that supervises for LANL for DOE stated, “More than 75 percent of the (low level waste) requiring disposal in FY 2007 is projected to come from environmental clean-up activities and decontamination and decommissioning,” a percentage expected to grow over the next five years.
The reply also pointed to the lab’s success “in reducing routine hazardous and radioactive wastes.”
Routine low-level wastes were reduced by 83 percent and hazardous wastes by 93.6 percent during the period from 1995 to 2005, the department stated in reply.