William ‘Ike’ White, Senior Advisor for the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM), far left, chats with the Los Alamos Reporter’s Maire O’Neill and EM-LA Manager Michael Mikolanis Wednesday evening. Photo Courtesy EM-LA
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
The Los Alamos Reporter was honored last week to have an exclusive interview with “EM-1”, William “Ike” White, Senior Advisor for the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management. White had just spent two days holding what he called a “very good series of discussions with a wide group of folks”. Also present was EM-LA Manager Michael Mikolanis.
The Reporter asked White about the expectations that New Mexicans have that with the Waste Isolation Pilot Project located in the state, waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory would have priority at the WIPP storage facility.
“I would say that we do have shipments from Los Alamos as a priority and I would not look at the allocation of shipments and the sheer numbers of those allocations as a sign entirely of whether something is a priority or not. Those are functions really of availability of materials to ship. You have a certain capacity of receipt at WIPP and you want to utilize that capacity efficiently and you want to take advantage of it while it’s there, so how you allocate those shipments really is the function of what’s available to ship,” White said.
He noted that over the course of the year, shipment varies depending on what’s been processed and characterized to be packaged at different sites and that individual times of the year can vary depending on things like weather.
“For LANL the constraining issue is not the prioritization of shipments to WIPP, it’s our ability and our challenges associated with getting material processed, repackaged, characterized and ready to ship. One of the reasons I was here this week was to look a couple of near-term priority items for us,” White said. “One is the characterization of the chromium plume and the other was our TRU (transuranic) waste packaging and processing capability. I had a chance to go look at our activities getting ready to restart a couple of our capabilities dealing with some of the more difficult waste streams.”
He said a review of the list of priorities he laid out for the entire EM program for calendar year 2022 it lists from his point of view the big picture things he and the program are trying to get done across the entire enterprise, the priorities as related to shipping to WIPP all come from Los Alamos.
Asked if there was more funding would there be more waste ready for transportation to WIPP and what would happen if there was more money allocated to expedite the cleanup program, White said with more resources typically more work can be done.
“The question is how you would want to allocate those resources. One of the things the Biden administration wants us to focus on is environmental justice and I think the cleanup program across the country has historically been a model for environmental justice. It really has always been about cleaning up the legacy of what was necessary to do from a national security and nuclear energy perspective over seven or eight decades. The benefits and impacts of that work have all been directed at the communities that were impacted by the environmental legacy that we’re dealing with,” White responded.
He said when one thinks of the EM program one of the challenges is making sure folks have a sense of what the entire scope of that program looks like.
“It’s not just the transuranic waste program, it’s the hexavalent chromium plume, it’s the number of material disposal areas that we haven’t yet settled on final remedies for and there’s work to be done on those as well as the aggregate areas across the Lab that need to be cleaned up. And so the real question as you increase the funding level is what the priority should be within that cleanup scope for that increased funding,” he said. “That’s the thing where I think our effort on environmental justice and finding a way to increase public participation and look at what we’re doing and getting input from the community in terms of what that sequence of work looks like going forward, is going to be very important.”
White said the real question is if there was more funding, of all of the cleanup scope, what should be prioritized.
“Certainly things that in the short-term seem to be immediately a priority and from a program perspective are a priority, are the management of the hexavalent chromium plume and getting the final remedy for that, and dealing with above ground legacy transuranic waste, but there are other aspects of the program and I think it’s incumbent on the program to actually engage in a public participation process to get input from the community on that and not just sort of decide a priority level. But also facility issues with the Laboratory, potential future source streams that need to be addressed – at some time we need to fold that into the mix as well,” he said.
The Reporter asked White what he sees happening with the hexavalent chromium plume project in light of the New Mexico Environment Department’s concern about the slow pace of cleanup of the plume and NMED’s recent statement that only some 450 pounds chromium has been removed out of an estimated 160,000 pounds, of chromium.
“There are two things we need to coalesce around and it would be my assumption that NMED would agree. We need to make sure we all have confidence in the characterization. As an engineer and a scientist, first you want to make sure you understand the problem and I think we spent a lot of effort on characterization. There’s work to do there in that regard, but the question is when do you think you know enough to actually begin to move forward to a final remedy,” White said. “In the short-term I think a lot of progress has been made over the past few years. The immediate concern is that you want to make sure that you have control of the plume. You want to make sure that it’s not progressing any further, that you can define the boundary, that you know the boundary and that you that you’ve arrested the movement of the plume and that it’s essentially under control. I think we have achieved that. All the data we have indicates that we’ve achieved that.”
He said now that that has been achieved as an interim measure, the question is how to move forward on what is understood from characterization to then get to the point where there is a final remedy, an end solution to fix the problem.
“And I think we would like to get to that sooner rather than later. It’s a question of how much more characterization data we and our regulator think we need and can agree on in order to then be able to agree on what our final remedy would look like. We’re working with NMED and we would like to get to that point sooner rather than later as well. Keep in mind on the numbers that you see. You have source term and I think you look at the amount that just gets released in the source term. That number is not actually the amount we assume is in the plume itself, which is a much smaller number. As to our ability to extract from that plume, the stage that we are at now is not mass extraction. The final remedy will look at some element of mass extraction for the final solution,” White said.
The Reporter also discussed EM’s public outreach the perceptions of the communities across the program.
“All the communities are different, oddly enough. Every community is very different in their perception of the cleanup activity. I think Los Alamos is among the most unique sites. It’s the birthplace of the Manhattan Project and it has long been an area that has been driven by the Laboratory. I think given decades of experience with the Laboratory and with the folks who work at the Laboratory making up the community and the families and the incredible history that you have here – what you have at Los Alamos is a little bit different than you might have at some places,” White said. “There’s a very high level of understanding of the basic nature of the work that’s going on and that understanding I think brings an easier understanding of the risks associated with the cleanup activities and with the work itself.”
“There may be some folks who are very much interested in the program. I think there are other folks who because of their history with the Laboratory, you might have a large percentage of those folks who just have confidence that it’s going to be taken care of and they understand how the system works. It’s easier to communicate with that body of folks because we speak the same language and communications is easier with that background with the Laboratory. I don’t know if that translates into a higher volume of interest that you would see at Hanford, Washington for example where the community has had a long experience working with the site. They’re very knowledgeable about what goes on there and very interested in the cleanup program,” White said.
He noted that at Hanford, however, the cleanup program is a much larger part of what’s going on at the site as opposed to Los Alamos where the cleanup program itself is balanced with the much larger national laboratory operation.
“So there’s a lot more to be interested in. The EM program is only a small part of it at LANL whereas at Hanford, we’re a much larger part of that,” White said.
White noted that he always enjoys coming back to New Mexico having briefly lived in Albuquerque.
“There were a couple of priorities I had for this visit. One was to look at the progress we are making on things I think of as our near-term priorities and so that meant going down into the canyon and talking to the folks who are involved the hexavalent chromium plume, talking to the folks who are doing the transuranic waste packaging certification and looking at where we are with starting up some of those processes. And then sitting down with the N3B leadership and with Michael Mikolanis and his team and talking also about the broader scope of work that we have to do, looking at the Material Disposal Areas and the Aggregate Areas we’re working on, thinking about the strategic look forward and how we will sequence the work that goes on in the future – so a lot of discussions with both the federal team and the contractor team doing a little bit of strategic planning,” White said.
He mentioned that he had a great chance to visit the Santa Fe Indian School, which focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education.
“If you look at some of the benefits of that program, it truly is extraordinary and it was a great conversation with some of the folks involved. I think a couple of things they do are really important to the cleanup program. One is the work that they do in the long-term can be very effective at helping us get very vibrant and active public participation from all of the folks who are impacted by the cleanup program.,” White said. “So if you think about the way the School involves the students in STEM education and ties that very specifically to hands on work in the environmental area, that is a great opportunity for us in the long run to really increase public participation and interest in the cleanup program.”
He said the program also provides opportunities and motivates those who are interested, to move into the environmental program as a career.
White said he also had a chance to meet with a number of EM-LA’s partners in the cleanup activity including Los Alamos County officials who were very interested in the work EM-LA is doing at the Middle DP Road Site. He also met with members of the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board.