DOE Takes Heat Over Lack Of Legacy Waste Cleanup Progress, Failure To Prioritize LANL Shipments To WIPP

Transuranic waste containers are loaded for shipment to WIPP. Photo Courtesy LANL

BY MAIRE O’NEILL
maire@losalamosreporter

There were signs Wednesday during the Legislative Committee on Radioactive and Hazardous Materials virtual meeting that the State of New Mexico is ready to get tough with the Department of Energy on the status of legacy waste cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratory and may even be ready to pursue litigation.

Legislators, including Rep. Christine Chandler in whose district LANL is located, listened to presentations by Steve Hoffman, deputy manager of DOE’s Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office and Stephanie Stringer, director of the NMED Resource Protection Division. NMED Secretary James Kenney was also on hand for the discussion.

Stringer told legislators NMED has received the plan DOE put together for proposed milestones for legacy waste cleanup over the next year.

“I must say we were significantly disappointed in the proposal. I know there are budget limitations that are driving some of this but we definitely want to see more robust plans. Last week, when we had our first round of negotiation meetings, we were very clear that it was a pretty weak proposal so we’re working through that process now as we speak,” she said.

Stringer said NMED is going to accept nothing less than a fully-funded, robust plan that ensures timely cleanup of legacy waste.

“That’s a challenge given the funding situation but that’s our expectation. We want this project to succeed. A commitment was made when the Consent Order was established to complete this in a timely way. Each year the Laboratory is required to give us an end date for when they expect all the cleanup to happen and it’s my job to make sure that we’re not extending that year out. That’s going to be my directive going through this process that we’re already in and I think that’s what the community expects as well,” Stringer said.

Chandler quizzed Hofmann about the number of waste shipments that have made their way off the hill to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad since January. He responded that there have been five shipments of transuranic waste and many more shipments of low-level and mixed waste. He noted that there are 30 shipments planned for the upcoming year.

Chandler asked how many years it will take to remove all the legacy waste from Los Alamos if the 30 shipments a year goal is met.

“We have a schedule for six years to accomplish shipment of the above ground waste as well as the below ground identified legacy which we need to retrieve and in some cases repackage and prepare for shipment. Our schedule has us finishing that shipment of legacy transuranic waste in 2027,” Hoffman said.

Chandler asked how many shipments have made their way from Idaho National Laboratory to WIPP since January. Hoffman did not know offhand but Stringer said she monitors the schedule of shipments and that roughly two to three shipments each week are scheduled on average.

“I frankly find that unacceptable,” Chandler said, referring to the disparity in the number of shipments accepted from WIPP in comparison to the few accepted from LANL this year. She noted that LANL not only has legacy waste to be shipped but also waste that is continually being generated. She asked Hoffman how much waste is accumulated as a result of ongoing operations and Hoffman declined to speak of the volume being generated by DOE/NNSA, noting only that NNSA and EM are partnering to optimize the shipments they are allotted.

Chandler asked how NMED is going to push DOE and EM to accelerate cleanup. Stringer said the state has a multi-pronged strategy and is taking every avenue it can to expedite the cleanup in many ways. 

“We provided comments during the Environmental Impact Statement process that speak to these other states getting pretty robust deals getting made with the Department of Energy to make sure their waste is getting shipped. We want to make sure we’re at the table for those conversations. We’re an important stakeholder as the host state for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. We want to make sure we’re getting the same treatment and prioritization for removing the waste off the hill,” she said.

Stringer noted that NMED is also pushing through the annual planning process for progress to continue and not slow down.

“We’re making sure that we’re pushing very hard and demanding a robust cleanup plan that includes the disposal of the waste as part of that to require that they stay on track to remove the waste,” she said.

Chandler noted that Idaho National Laboratory has an agreement with DOE because they sued the state of Idaho. She asked what the motivator is to give New Mexico a seat at the table.

“We’re exploring a lot of options to get to that point. One of them is making sure we’re stating that expectation to be brought to the table but we’re also considering other means by which we can come to the table. Some are still being explored. I assure you that every option is on the table whether it goes to that level (litigation) remains to be seen. It’s very disappointing when we see other states getting these results so yes, we’d have to take some lessons from those experiences and apply them in New Mexico,” Stringer said.

Secretary Kenney chimed in that the prioritization of cleanup at Los Alamos is of most importance to New Mexico.

“The prioritization to DOE seems to be Idaho and Savannah River. Representative Chandler, you hit the nail on the head. The number of shipments from other states going to WIPP right now is of great concern to us. And if we’re to follow the pattern that other states have used, that would mean we would have to litigate with DOE to bring New Mexico into the running to get prioritization,” Kenney said. “We hold the geologic repository here in New Mexico. We should be the priority by which legacy waste is moved there and we’re not, and that’s been an ongoing source of conversation.”

He said NMED is not opposed to reevaluating the Consent Order and started the process in January by talking to the community about what their needs are.

“We’re seeing more and more that we’re trending towards an impasse on the movement of legacy waste from Los Alamos. I hope that people hear me saying this, that if that’s our only option then that’s an option we’re going to explore and we’re going to need to figure out how to do that in a way that yields a better result for New Mexico. Right now we’re at the bottom of the list, and that is unacceptable,” Kenney said.

Sen. Jeff Steinborn said he strongly believes New Mexico needs to change its strategy.

“If we continue to say to the federal government, “Take whatever pace is comfortable for you, appropriate whatever little amount of money is also comfortable for you”, then you will get exactly the result you ask for, which is low expectations, because there’s no higher expectation,” Steinborn said. “I think in New Mexico we owe it to our state and to our citizens that we demand the utmost urgency speed with protecting our environment and in return for what we do for the country.”

He said he believes the state should go back to the drawing table on the Consent Order.

“It feels like that is our primary point of leverage certainly in all these legacy issues. It’s not just about getting the waste off the hill, and I know that’s a big issue for people locally, for all of us. I feel like the DOE ought to double the budget, frankly. We have billions and billions to expand the mission but yet we are continuing to shortchange the cleanup. I think those priorities are kind of messed up,” Steinborn said. He went on to say he would like to see the state rip up the Consent Order.

Chandler told the Los Alamos Reporter Friday that she has had several conversations with Secretary Kenney about the lack of progress on Laboratory clean up and removal of legacy waste from the site. 

“He and I share the same concern: the Department of Energy EM has neglected its obligations to the residents of the state to ensure timely execution of its cleanup responsibilities. As person who fully supports the Lab’s mission, I am concerned that this this lack of progress has the potential for adversely impacting the Laboratory ability to advance its national security program,” she said. “EM’s poor performance should not be tolerated as the state evaluates its options.”