Voices Of Los Alamos Group Hears From N3B On Legacy Waste Cleanup

IMG_3009.jpgFrazer Lockhart, Regulatory and Stakeholder Interface Manager for legacy waste cleanup contractor N3B responds to questions at Monday’s Voice of Los Alamos meeting. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com

IMG_3012 (3).jpgMembers of Voices of Los Alamos listen Monday evening to a presentation by Frazer Lockhart of N3B. Photo by Maire O’Neill/loslamosreporter.com

IMG_3015.jpgChatting after the Voices of Los Alamos presentation by N3B Monday evening are, from left, Los Alamos County Councilor David Izraelevitz, Public Education Commissioner Karyl Ann Armbruster, Los Alamos School Board Chair Ellen Ben-Naim and Rep. Christine Chandler. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com


Frazer Lockhart, Regulatory and Stakeholder Interface Manager for N3B, the legacy waste cleanup contractor at Los Alamos National Laboratory, was the guest speaker at Monday evening’s Voices of Los Alamos.

In addition to updating the group on N3B’s work on LANL property, Lockhart explained the company’s public outreach and participation programs including apprenticeship programs through Northern New Mexico College and UNM=LA.

Questions asked of Lockhart following his presentation were varied and pertained to what N3B has found during its work to date on legacy waste cleanup; the Royal Demolition Explosives issue; and the progress of cleanup at Technical Area (TA)-21 on DP Road.  TA-21 consisted of a Manhattan Project and Cold War-era complex of buildings that housed the plutonium processing facility, and where groundbreaking tritium research took place. At one point, TA-21 contained 125 buildings. N3B awarded a $1.5 million subcontract to TerranearPMC of Los Alamos and its partner Envirocon of Missoula, Montana, to decontaminate and remove above-ground debris from TA-21.

Lockhart was asked about surprises N3B might be facing as they conduct cleanup. He indicated that there are pretty good records available about what was buried at TA-54 but that the records for TA-21 were not quite as food as was discovered when Department of Energy Environmental Management worked on remediation at Materials Disposal Area B out by TA-21 using Recovery Act funds a few years ago.

“There were a few surprises there. The way we deal with that is a very conservative approach. We take all the characterization data we have, analyze that, kind of judge the worst case that we might run into and set our approach for doing that retrieval consistent with what we believe is going to be there,” Lockhart said.

He used the example of MDAB where although there was a lot of data at the time about what had been buried there, there were “some pretty good rumors” including one of an entire truck being buried there which was true.

“Several other things that were rumored to be in there were in there. That was part of why they used the mobile enclosure approach where they had the two big structures that are still out there. You can see them from East Road. They were used so that the area being excavated would be covered and enclosed. Even though it wasn’t a complete building with four-stage high-efficiency particulate ventilation, it still have air control and monitoring so that even with a worst case surprise we had pretty high confidence it would be addressed. It will be the same thing at TA-54. I don’t know if we’ll always use an enclosure like that but essentially the controls that are put in place for the retrieval of the waste will yield high confidence that there won’t be a release,” Lockhart said.

Lockhart noted that property west of the fence at TA-21 is land that will be dispositioned between the Lab and the County.

“Some land has been turned over and some has yet to be turned over. Part of the interplay between the N3B and the EM-LA office and the Laboratory is that NNSA and Triad still serve as the landlord for the site and pretty much always will. All the utilities, all the real estate management are all managed by the Lab. Pretty much anything N3B does to clean up an area or to remediate it, when we are done, we will turn it back to the Laboratory and there’s going to be a further transfer of that property to Los Alamos County or someone else,” he said.

Asked if when the area was remediated, everything was “scraped out until there was no contamination left”, Lockhart said the short answer is no. He said the general remediation approach is based on what the standard is of cleanup.

“The cleanup for TA-21 that is currently in our contract (and not to say this couldn’t change) involves working to an industrial standard which basically then runs through some fairly complicated models for how radiation is released and other toxic chemicals are released from the ground and go to a human receptor or to plants or animals. All that takes you to a point where you have to get contamination below a certain level and you need to get it below that level to whatever depth,” he said. He said if the area is to be deemed suitable for any possible, the standard for cleanup has to go down to about 10 or 12 feet which is about the depth to which people dig basements. If it is going to be for industrial use, that standard might be down to six feet.

“The contamination level depends on the specific site and the contaminant, but it’s very rarely zero. We don’t live in a zero world. The Laboratory detection techniques now are such that things we believed 20 years to already be at zero, now with Lab sampling techniques that can record lower and lower contamination levels, we pretty much realize that we can never get to zero. That’s the reason that the state sets the safe standards for particular materials, be they radiological or chemical or a metal contaminant like chromium, aluminum, lead or copper,” Lockhart said.

He noted that the work at TA-21 still to be done includes TA-257, a small building, used for processing liquid waste, some which may have been transuranic waste, that was not addressed during the remediation done between 2009 to 2012. He said the building is still there and it has a couple of little sheds and outbuildings connected to it and a few little tanks.

Lockhart was also asked about the RDX issue which along with chromium plume was the subject of a prior Voices of Los Alamos meeting. He explained that in the 40s and 50s, RDX was basically disposed of in burn pits which is how it got released into the environment. The said today any use of RDX is in controlled areas where there are berms so it’s no longer released into the environment in the same way. He said those practices were stopped many, many years ago but there’s still the release that’s part of legacy waste.

Lockhart said some 10 to 15 years ago remedial actions were taken including the removal and dispositioning of a huge area of soils in TA-15. He said there was also RDX discovered in some of the shallow groundwater, some of the perched water tables that are 20 to 40 feet down and so remedial action was taken to address that RDX. He said several monitoring wells were drilled down to the deep groundwater to monitor for RDX and that at that time there was no indication of RDX in the deep groundwater

Then just a few years ago, he said, the first environmental sample that had RDX at depth was taken which raised an alarm bell with the Department of Energy. The decision was made to drill another deep well R69 to provide better characterization and more data. That well was just completed by N3B and samples showed there was some RDX that was above the standard. Lockhart said.

“We are now actively doing the characterization and analysis of that small plume that we believe is in the deep groundwater. As with all groundwater work at LANL, it involves a great deal of modeling. You can’t see 1,200 feet down so you’re getting information from a handful of data points and what you know of geologic character, groundwater and surface water that flows into the area from other regional wells and the like, to build a model and try and predict as best as you can,” he said.  It is then hoped that with the hard samples, the model can be further refined and confirm the hypothesis.

“That work is actively underway right now and we’ll be giving a report to the DOE next year on what we believe those model results say about that RDX plume – how big it is, if it’s moving. We know it’s not moving very fast because groundwater movement in that area of the Laboratory property is on the order of feet per year. It would take 200 odd years to go the three or four miles it would need to get to a groundwater supply well,” he said.