Accidents Happen: Northern New Mexico Needs A LANL Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement

Letter To The Editor_Pongratz Endorses Chris Chandler For House District 43 Seat (45)


In light of the tragic accident in Beirut, shouldn’t we be looking at the potential danger of stored radioactive waste here in New Mexico?

During the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000, there was much worry about Area G at Los Alamos National Laboratory with it’s 60,000 drums of contaminated materials from the Lab’s weapons work stored above ground in plastic domed tents. The flames came within several hundred yards of Area G but luckily did not reach it. It was a close call!

Back then, we were told that by 2022 LANL expected to have at least 90,000 drums stored at Area G. I don’t know how much that has changed with the new planned expansion of industrial pit production, but the figures will probably be higher before it is done. It is all a matter of degree. How much waste does it take to cause a serious accident that will contaminate our communities forever? How many bombs do we need, when we already have enough in our stockpile to kill the earth many times over? But all that is a moral question and our leaders don’t seem to want to hear that. They use jobs and revenue for NM as the reason to support LANL’s nuclear weapons mission.

Twenty years have passed since the Cerro Grande Fire and all that has changed is that more and more waste is being stored. With a new multi-billion dollar proposal for industrial-scale plutonium pit production at LANL, more radioactive and toxic waste will be generated, all with no Environmental Impact Study, and no plans for safe storage (as if radioactive waste can ever be stored safely!).

In 2011 the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (RCLC) was formed, ostensibly to lobby for and support legacy waste clean-up at the Lab.

When examining the RCLC’s website, under Actions and Advocacy, and from reading meeting minutes, I found almost nothing of substantive value that our communities have received, either in the areas of clean-up or economic development. (The Actions and Advocacy tab only takes you back to 2014.)

The RCLC Board repeatedly hosts the same presentations by LANL’s cleanup contractor, N3B, Department of Energy NNSA and Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Offices and Triad LLC. The RCLC Board never asks substantive questions, if any. The RCLC, from what I can tell, has never hosted any independent presentation on their areas of advocacy, even though, over the past two years, members of the public have been requesting it. And now as I understand it, the RCLC is currently spending its time and taxpayer dollars looking for a new executive director after Chicanos Por La Causa opted not to seek the contract again after only two years. It seems like there will now be further delay for the Board to address the growing number of issues being revealed at LANL. 

Among issues that I believed the RCLC Board should have addressed this year but hasn’t are: the tritium release that was planned for April but was postponed indefinitely as the result of swift mobilization by Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and the public, and the legacy waste that has been unearthed on DP Road in Los Alamos County since February. 

Among many other requests, under public comment and in letters to the board, concerned citizens who are paying attention have repeatedly asked that the RCLC take a position on a Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement (SWEIS). It was revealed in January of this year that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) decided they don’t need to conduct any environmental impact studies before proceeding with the expansion. This is irresponsible for such a big new expansion, when these studies would address waste and cleanup issues that will potentially harm the environment. It is confusing because a draft Environmental Impact Study has been prepared for the proposed Savannah River Site pit facility and on August 6, Hiroshima Day, NNSA announced its intent to conduct a SWEIS for the Livermore National Laboratory in California. Why is LANL being left out? And why is the RCLC silent on this urgent issue?

Representatives from all the neighboring communities serve on the RCLC Board as a way of showing our support for LANL’s mission. Many of these reps signed on with good intentions, but where are the results of their advocacy roles and years of supposed oversight? Perhaps there might be a better way for our local governments to advocate for improving cleanup efforts at LANL and economic development for our local communities.

Instead of $15,000 a month for executive director services for the RCLC, maybe our local governments could consider collaborating with leaders from the many citizen groups who are working so hard on shoestring budgets or no budgets at all to study operations at LANL, to expose safety violations, to lobby legally for clean up and citizen and worker health and safety. Wouldn’t it be money better spent, and perhaps move legacy waste cleanup forward?

Hindsight is supposed to be 2020, and yet here we are in this epic year, with a deadly pandemic and an inept response from our DC administration, which, instead of protecting citizens, plans to spend trillions of dollars on new nuclear weapons. As shown so graphically in Beirut, accidents do happen. A radioactive release at Area G would be deadly to the Los Alamos community and spread radioactive waste to all our surrounding communities.

We need a new SWEIS that takes into account the very real dangers of fire, human error, earthquakes, etc. Los Alamos just felt the 3.7 earthquake in Capulin July 30. The New Mexico Environment Department warns that, with a fault running directly under LANL, a 7 plus earthquake could happen at any time. So far, neither our New Mexico congressional delegation or our governor have taken steps to pressure DOE/NNSA to conducta SWEIS. 

Do we really need to suffer a massive accident before any of our leaders wake up and do what’s right, namely to demand a SWEIS before moving forward with a major expansion of pit production and the waste it creates?

Jean Nichols
Taosenos for Peaceful and Sustainable Futures
Llano, NM