BY MAIRE O’NEILL
The planned venting of tritium from four Flanged Tritium Waste Containers at Los Alamos National Laboratory on or after Friday, Sept. 11 has placed the state of New Mexico in a bad situation, New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) Sec. James Kenney told the Legislature’s Committee on Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Wednesday.
The Los Alamos Reporter previously published two stories on the venting project:
“These containers have been neglected for so long by both DOE and the Environment Department. We’re in this position, which is do they vent those tritium drums, collect that emission to prevent it from being in the air and then move those drums offsite, or do we run the risk of leaving those drums onsite knowing that they are pressurized and could rupture meaning an uncontrolled amount of tritium would go out,” Kenney said. “I do not like the position our Department is in. I think this goes towards the fact that DOE did not do something sooner and it goes to the fact that our Department has been so underfunded that we don’t have the staff to go and hold people accountable to do those things in a timely manner, so we are in a very bad position.”
Kenney said he recognizes that there is “no win here” for the Department. He said the tritium emissions are controlled by the Environment Protect Agency and that NMED has not legal jurisdiction over them.
“I have jurisdiction over what is in the drums once the emission is gone because that’s a hazardous waste that we’re able to manage from a regulatory perspective, but EPA is on the hook here. And do I think folks in Dallas could oversee what happens in New Mexico as effectively as I can? Absolutely not,” he said.
Kenney said he was also bothered by the fact that DOE “has not done all the consultation with tribes and pueblos as well as other New Mexicans”.
“We’ve not preordained anything. The request (for the temporary authorization) is in to us. We’re evaluating it but I recognize that no matter what we do here, there is some degree of risk to the public on both ends of the spectrum,” he said.
The proposed tritium venting project was raised during committee discussions with a panel that included NMED’s director of resource protection Stephanie Stringer, Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and Beata Tsosie Pena of Tewa Women United.
Tsosie Pena had expressed concern that only two days of notice had been given prior to the Sept. 11 date for the tritium operation to begin. Arends said that with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic , having tritium in the air “could damage a lot of people” and that she was concerned by the fact that the Environment Department is “even considering a temporary authorization for this material that can be safely stored as it has been stored for years”.
“There’s also another piece to this – that under the Triad contract, one of their performance requirements for this fiscal year is to vent five more containers that are larger, that contain more tritium, by Sept. 30. So we feel like they’re trying to get permission to vent these four containers on Friday so that they can vent the other five before the end of the fiscal year so that they can get their bonus,” Arends said. “This is a pattern in practice by DOE – to do things in order to get the bonuses for their contractors. It’s a grave concern and I would plead with Ms Stringer to deny the temporary authorization.”
Stringer told the committee that she knew the letter went out Wednesday morning saying that the venting operation could happen Sept. 11.
“I just wanted to let you all know that they can’t proceed with that tritium venting until they have a decision from the Environment Department regarding a temporary authorization request and that decision has not been rendered so they cannot proceed until that piece is closed,” she said. “The other piece of information is that we had a briefing from EPA and DOE and they did indicate that there was outreach to the surrounding pueblos so just to clarify that there has been some level of outreach that’s been done. It’s my understanding they provided a technical presentation to them to explain the process that was going to be used.”
The Sept. 3 letter from NNSA/Triad to NMED requesting the temporary authorization describes the project as a small operation to support the storage, venting, sorting, segregation of the four containers, which they say is an important step in reducing LANL’s waste inventory and risk.
“While these containers pose a minor, manageable hazard in their current configuration, they cannot be shipped without verifying headspace pressures have been relieved, and pressure build up over time becomes increasingly more difficult to mitigate,” the letter states. “Once it is verified that pressure has been relieved, extensive analysis and review has shown that the containers can be safely handled and transported for preparation for out-of-state shipping, and all containers will meet (Department of Transportation) regulations for shipment.”
The containers have been stored for an extended period of time per LANL’s Site Treatment Plan and all stakeholders are eager to permanently disposition this difficult waste stream, the letter says.
An Aug. 10 application to construct or modify a structure or facility pursuant to the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants, 40 CFR Part 61 has been approved by USEPA Region 6 for this activity. That application was posted in the LANL Electronic Public Reading Room Sept. 9 along with the Sept. 3 letter to NMED.
The letter to NMED states that NNSA and Triad “provided information sharing sessions to the Los Alamos County Council, the Accord Pueblos, EPA Region 6 leadership, and the NMED.” There was no public hearing in Los Alamos County where Building 1028, site of the proposed venting, is located about a mile from White Rock. Los Alamos County Council instead opted to hold two “subquorum” information sessions with NNSA for County Councilors and the tritium project has never been placed on an agenda for discussion at a Council meeting or workshop.
NNSA spokesperson Toni Chiri said Thursday afternoon that as operational personnel return to LANL, in accordance with COVID-19 health and safety measures, the site will soon have the full complement of personnel needed to support the venting of the FTWCs.
“Pending successful completion of the operational readiness review process and approvals from the Environmental Protection Agency and New Mexico Environment Department, LANL is targeting execution of the venting operation for fall 2020,” she said.