DOE-EM Senior Advisor William ‘Ike’ White Fields Questions On LANL Cleanup, WIPP And More At Santa Fe Town Hall

DOE-EM Senior Advisor William ‘Ike’ White, left, and NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby at the April 4 town hall in Santa Fe. Photo by Maire O’Neill/


William “Ike” White, Senior Advisor to the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management (EM), joined National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Administrator Jill Hruby for a hybrid town hall meeting April 4 in Santa Fe moderated by Santa Fe County Commission Chair Anna Hansen that was attended by some 250 people in person and another 200 online.

In his opening remarks, White, who has been involved in nuclear safety and operations during his entire career including a decade with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and another decade with NNSA, spoke about the EM in general. (See separate story on Hruby’s comments)

“We’re part of the Energy Department that’s responsible for cleaning up the legacy of the nuclear security work and the nuclear energy work that’s been done in this country since the Manhattan Project – an enormous scope of work. If you don’t know, it’s the single largest environmental liability that the U.S. government has,” he said. “So when folks think about that program, one of the first things that always comes to mind is the scale of the problem and the significance and the difficulty of the work that needs to done.

White said one of the things that has impressed him in the three years he has been with EM is just how much progress the folks in the first 30 years of the program have made across the country and here in New Mexico in addressing the legacy of the work that has been done since the Manhattan Project.

“In Los Alamos for example, about 60 percent of the 2,100 sites that we started with in the EM program have been remediated and closed. We have treated over 400 million gallons of groundwater. We’ve dispositioned the legacy transuranic waste that was ready and available to ship, getting us to the point where we’re retrieving, packing, characterizing and shipping waste as it’s ready to ship to the (Waste Isolation Pilot Project),” White said. “But just because we’re at this point where we’ve made a lot of progress doesn’t mean that we don’t have a lot of work to do here in New Mexico and around the country.”

He said one of the things he has found that’s really important to make progress with all the difficult work that EM has left to do is getting alignment with all of the folks that are impacted by the cleanup work behind what that cleanup program is going to look like going into the future.

“If I look across the country and I think about where the cleanup program has been the most successful, we have been the most successful where we have the best alignment with all of the folks that are affected by the program. I see this everywhere,” White said.

One of the initiatives that EM kicked off about a year or so, he said, is an effort at Los Alamos in particular to focus on what that cleanup program looks like going forward into the future – developing a clear vision for what EM is going to do with that cleanup program and getting the perspectives from all of the folks who will be impacted by it.

“We are trying to understand a lot of different perspectives on what the work scope will look like going forward and then build a vision for the cleanup program around that scope. So for me this is a really important opportunity to hear from a lot of people who care deeply and passionately about what that program looks like,” White said.

Several speakers at the meeting voiced concerns about the future of the DOE Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad.

“One of the things the Environmental Management program does is run the WIPP site. The limit for WIPP is based on the statutory limit that is in the Land Withdrawal Act and is about 6.2 million cubic feet. Right now that’s a little more than 40 percent taken. For the DOE, that is the hard statutory limit to what we can do currently under the authorization we have for WIPP,” White said. “As someone whose background is in nuclear safety… that’s something that’s very important to me personally.”

He noted that he is very proud of the fact that the WIPP shipment transportation folks have done nearly 16 million miles worth of safe shipping around the country.

“I do understand the perspective on updating our environmental impact analysis at WIPP, so that is something I will take back, about how we best do that and I certainly need to have input into what we’re planning and what we’re doing,” White said.

Later in the meeting White noted that EM is currently working with the New Mexico Environment Department and the Pueblo de San Ildefonso and others affected by the hexavalent chromium plume at Los Alamos, trying to figure out what is the right path forward.

“We are going to continue to work collaboratively with the state and all those who are impacted and we’ll be as transparent as we can and take input once we’ve worked through that,” he said.

Neelam Dhawan of NMED’s Hazardous Waste Bureau spoke on the chromium issue, noting that the plume is one of NMED’s priorities and that they are working to resolve it.

“It was discovered in 2005 so it’s been there for a long time and we’ve gotten quite a few monitoring wells in and there is right now an Interim Measure. There’s some pump and treat going on right now and the focus is not really to reduce the mass of chromium but to prevent it from moving towards the Pueblo de San Ildefonso because it is right next to them,” she said. “We do have differences with DOE on how to proceed and we are working on this. We believe that the extraction portion of the pump and treat process is working well in pulling the plume towards the Lab boundary and away from San Ildefonso but we don’t believe the injection which is happening within the plume is helpful.”

Dhawan said NMED has issued a notice of violation and ordered DOE to stop injecting in the plume, which they have since March 31.

“We have some meetings planned where we can discuss this. We are concerned because we don’t want contamination to move onto San. Ildefonso but at the same time we don’t want them to stop extraction because we do feel that one part of the Interim Measure is working. We are open to negotiations to talk about it,” she said. “I think DOE’s and our goals are similar.  We all want the chromium plume negated. DOE is in a little bit of a rush I think to get to the remedy. We believe the nature and extent of the plume have not been defined. We still don’t know the vertical extend. We don’t know the vertical extent or the lateral extent. NMED will be selecting the remedy so they need to have enough information before they select a remedy”

Don Hancock, Director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program at the Southwest Research & Information Center in Albuquerque, noted that White had not addressed the issue of another transuranic waste disposal site besides WIPP, adding that when he had asked White about the same issue in May 2022, White had responded that there was no plan. Hancock said NMED had issued the draft WIPP permit renewal, which includes the condition “NMED shall submit an annual report summarizing its progress towards siting another geologic repository for transuranic waste in a state other than New Mexico”. He asked if DOE will agree to that condition and collaborate with the state on that condition, and if so, when will DOE publically start the process of finding a site. His third question was if DOE is not going to agree to the permit, what it would take to make DOE start acting on another repository.

“Does it take the state using its authority to shut down WIPP? Does it take the state or citizens to take legal action against DOE?” Hancock asked.

White responded that EM’s comments on the proposed permit conditions are due April 18.

“Until we get to that point I can’t say ahead of time what our responses to those permit conditions are going to be. I can say that we intend to work very collaboratively with the state to address them as constructively as we can. That process will be public when it plays out and you will certainly see what the responses are and you will see the public process play out,” he said. “When you asked me the question directly, I was candid. We don’t actually have a plan for what comes after WIPP at this point. At some point we do need to think about that. The question is when is the right time for us to think about that. I appreciate your perspective on that.”