Concerns persist over pace of cleaning up U.S. nuclear lab

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) – Officials at one of the nation’s top nuclear weapons labs reiterate their pledge to focus on cleaning up the Cold War-era contamination left behind by decades of research and research. bomb making.

But New Mexico environmental officials and watch groups remain concerned about the pace and likelihood that the federal government has significantly underestimated its environmental responsibility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The US Department of Energy has estimated that it will be 2036 before the lab cleanup – which played a key role in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II – is complete. Federal officials admitted in a meeting Thursday night that the date has not changed, but are examining whether new risks will increase the need for more funding and more time.

Michael Mikolanis, head of the DOE’s environmental management office in Los Alamos, answered questions from a 2021 independent audit that found the agency’s liability for environmental clean-up exceeded more than a half – billion dollars for the last fiscal year and is increasing. This includes an underestimated liability at Los Alamos of more than $ 880 million.

Mikolanis confirmed that a recent review revealed new information that increased responsibilities for the cleanup beyond what officials previously understood.

“I certainly can’t tell you yes or no that the date is changed, but obviously with an increased scope… either we would need more funds to do it or to lengthen the dates,” he said. “We are currently evaluating this. We have not made any decisions.

The DOE faces a legal challenge by the state of New Mexico over setting and meeting milestones in its current cleanup agreement with the state, which was signed in 2016. State officials have found that the federal government’s plan for the previous fiscal year was flawed.

Watch groups said it wasn’t until the state filed a lawsuit in February 2021 that the DOE proposed to increase the lab’s cleaning budget by about a third. Prior to that, budgets were stable, with groups arguing that the DOE had no incentive to seek more funding.

“My conclusion is that the New Mexico Department of the Environment is pulling a lot more of the stick than the carrot when it comes to engaging the lab and the DOE in a full cleanup,” Jay said. Coghlan, Executive Director of Nuclear Watch. New Mexico.

Chris Catechis, director of the Department of the Environment’s resource protection division, told the meeting that despite the ongoing litigation, the state wants to continue working with federal officials to move the needle when it’s about fighting plumes of chromium contamination, removing tons of contaminated soil and other lab projects.

“We agree that we don’t think the cleanup is going as quickly as we would like, but that said, we don’t want to stray from the process,” Catechis said.

Some elected officials and other critics have also expressed concerns about how the federal government’s plan to increase production at Los Alamos of the plutonium cores used in the country’s nuclear arsenal will result in additional waste that will add to the liabilities. elimination.

Officials said during the meeting that the National Nuclear Security Administration has funding for an environmental review of site-wide operations. Although they declined to provide further details, advocates have argued for years that the environmental consequences and the profitability of laboratory operations deserve further examination.

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