DOE Investigators Study Los Alamos Nuclear Waste
LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — ANOTHER nuclear weapons development laboratory is in the hot seat.The United States Department of Energy (DOE) has sent a team of inspectors to the Los Alamos National National Laboratory (LANL) here to investigate a wide range of environmental, safety, and health questions. According to LANL spokesman John Webster, the "tiger team mission is to "help our facility to implement the improved environmental and safety regulations that [Energy Secretary] James Watkins issued in 1989." But critics of the lab say the investigators are part of an effort to assuage public concern about a program that is inherently unsafe; the risks of nuclear weapons development, they say, cannot be justified in a post-cold-war era. This summer, allegations about a cluster of similar illnesses in Los Alamos focused attention on environmental and waste disposal problems at LANL. Fearing a possible shutdown, LANL officials issued a "self-assessment" detailing about 770 current violations of state and federal health, safety, and environmental standards at the lab. "We've put in a lot of work preparing for [DOE's] visit, and we don't think they'll order any shutdowns of our facilities," Mr. Webster says. The August report found that LANL, which houses 15 nuclear facilities including one of the nation's oldest operating reactors, is not prepared for emergencies. "This is one area where we really have to play catch-up," lab director Sigfried Hecker told reporters upon releasing the study. "We've lost ground on emergency preparedness, and we're actually not as prepared now as we were three years ago." Mr. Hecker added that "it's very important that we work more closely with Los Alamos and other nearby communities that could be affected by an emergency here." Despite the serious violations admitted in the laboratory's self assessment, LANL critics remain cynical about change. "The laboratory doesn't want shutdowns, and neither does Secretary Watkins, so I don't expect there will be any," says Don Hancock of Albuquerque's Southwest Information and Research Center. "Part of the reason for these tiger teams is to prevent real outside regulation of the DOE weapons program," Mr. Hancock adds. "Because the tiger teams are DOE trying to regulate itself, they won't solve the problems." James Magruder, DOE official who brought the tiger team to LANL late last month, offers another view. "Sure we're accountable to the secretary, but he's accountable in turn to the public." Until recently LANL has remained relatively unaffected by the waste and safety crises that have shaken other nuclear weapons plants. The DOE weapons complex includes 15 facilities resting on 3,900 square miles in 13 states. Hazardous waste problems haunt Hanford, Wash., and Rocky Flats, Colo. Five reactors at Savannah River Site in South Carolina were shut down for safety reasons. Although it has no nuclear weapons production lines, nuclear research and development work at LANL produces large amounts of long-lived radioactive waste. The exact volume of waste that has been disposed of at Los Alamos is unknown. When the first atomic and hydrogen weapons were produced here, the emphasis was on creating weapons before America's adversaries did, and no records were kept on waste disposal. But recently DOE has identified approximately 2,300 solid-waste disposal sites scattered around the 27,500-acre LANL reservation and other parts of Los Alamos County. All of these must be investigated and eventually excavated as part of LANL's cleanup, which DOE says will cost about $2 billion and continue through the year 2019. While cleanup plans are being developed, LANL continues to discharge several thousand pounds of radioactive solid and liquid wastes each week, and DOE "restoration" plans do not include a timetable for ending these discharges. In addition to its releases of solid and liquid nuclear wastes, LANL vents daily a variety of radioactive gases into the air from about 100 stacks at its plutonium facility and other technical operations at the laboratory. Citing the growing list of environmental and safety problems at LANL and other DOE weapons sites and recent changes in the world political climate, the Santa Fe-based LANL Economic Conversion Project says the way to attack environmental problems at LANL is to shift the lab's mission away from nuclear weapons development so that it stops producing nuclear waste.