DOE's Accelerated Clean Up = Accelerated Cover Up
By Sue Dayton
In the 1950s the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the forerunner of the Department of Energy (DOE), admitted that the problem of long-lived waste from nuclear reactors was being "swept under the rug." Today, high level wastes from nuclear reactors is just one part of a much larger problem that includes "legacy waste" generated as a result of nuclear weapons production. Over the years Congress has allocated billions of dollars to the DOE to clean up these waste sites. Skeptics point to the agency's mismanagement of funds that have resulted in thousands of waste sites located in or near communities across the nation that will remain as toxic and intact as the day they were created. Many see this problem as an inherent conflict of interest: here is an agency dedicated to making nuclear bombs, not cleaning up waste. Whatever the reason, the fact that DOE has yet to clean up these sites is a national disgrace, and communities are now being forced to accept yet another plan conceived by the DOE called "accelerated clean up." That the DOE dares to use the words "clean up" in this program's title really takes the cake because there's nothing accelerated about this clean up except the speed at which these toxic waste sites will be covered up and left in the ground with signs and fences installed around them under yet program with a catchy title called "long-term environmental stewardship."
Although it is being touted as a program that will ultimately result in reduced risk to the public, DOE's "accelerated clean up" is far from science-based, but it's cheap, and clever enough to convince the public that this plan will protect people from getting exposed to toxic waste that will remain hazardous for longer than we've been a species on this planet. One such dump known as the Mixed Waste Landfill, a 2.6-acre waste site containing 30 years of radioactive and chemical waste generated during the Cold War years, lies in unlined pits and trenches at Sandia National Laboratories on the outskirts of Albuquerque. The dump is located upwind from a number of communities in the South Valley, the Pueblo of Isleta, and a little over a mile from the Mesa del Sol and La Semilla, a planned community and nature park where thousands of people plan to make their future homes. About the best thing anyone can say about the Mixed Waste Landfill at Sandia National Laboratories is that waste is no longer allowed to be disposed of at the dump. It's not quite the same at Los Alamos National Laboratory where radioactive waste continues to be buried in unlined pits and trenches in the raw dirt under the watchful eye of the New Mexico Environment Department, our illustrious State Senators and Congressmen, and brainy physicists who have chosen nuclear toys over a clean environment.
Under the DOE's accelerated clean up program the proposed plan for the Mixed Waste Landfill is to: 1) throw 3-ft. of dirt on top of it; 2) put up some no trespassing signs and chain link fences; 3) construct a fancy high tech monitoring system that requires continued, extensive maintenance to make sure we know when the dump begins to contaminate the ground water like several other sites at Sandia already have; 4) get at least some citizen buy-in so DOE's program will have some semblance of public support; and 5) come up with a well-thought-out plan to make sure people will believe DOE when it says it will monitor this toxic waste dump "forever." This last one will be especially tough since DOE had to use metal detectors to locate the location of the Mixed Waste Landfill after only a couple decades had passed. To make matters worse the Sandia and the DOE don't have a complete record of all of the waste buried at the Mixed Waste Landfill.
Chances are slim that DOE's "long-term environmental stewardship" will actually result in less risk to the public as DOE claims, and it's very likely that "stewardship" will result in increased risk to the public as concluded in the National Academy of Sciences report, "Long-Term Institutional Management of U.S. DOE Legacy Waste Sites." The report lowers the boom on DOE, stating that, "long-term environmental stewardship will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve," and "residual waste will remain, posing a potential threat to human health and the environment." It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what will happen after the monitoring money runs out, memories fade, and the signs and fences rust guarding buried chemicals and long-lived radioactive waste that will continue its hazardous reign for (in many cases) hundreds of thousands of years. Although long-term stewardship is still in its infancy the DOE is already attempting to pawn off these sites on other agencies to deal with: no more sites, no more liabilities.
Another money saver for
DOE is designating contaminated areas as national wildlife refuge areas.
Clean up standards for mule deer are less than for people, and DOE can
save some real bucks (no pun intended) using this strategy. While there
may be a certain thrill attached to seeing a deer with two heads designating
contaminated areas as national wildlife refuges does nothing in the way
of protecting future populations of people that may someday be living
on these lands. The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER),
an energy-driven think tank group that specializes in research of nuclear
issues, says the DOE should clean up its waste sites to a "subsistence
farming scenario" in order to "ensure the health of future generations,
of land and water resources, and of ecosystems thousands of years into
the future." Not only does this plan by IEER make sound scientific
sense, it's logical as well. The risks and uncertainties associated with
these contaminated areas would be largely minimized, especially at waste
sites located in areas on a fast track towards development, like the Mixed
A recent review of the proposed cap for the Mixed Waste Landfill by Dr. Hakonson, a former scientist with Los Alamos National Laboratory, concluded the chances of buried waste becoming mobilized to the ground surface over the long-term through a number of factors are pretty darn good. Other studies have shown that all landfills eventually leak, and over time virtually any type of landfill cap will be consumed by natural forces. The only solution is perpetual maintenance - and humans have no experience in maintaining anything in perpetuity.
Two public meetings held last year showed overwhelming support for clean up of the Mixed Waste Landfill. Former Mayor Jim Baca supports clean up of the landfill. Over 30,000 citizens represented by Citizen Action also support clean up. Field staff employed by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) who share offices with members of the Sandia team, not surprisingly, favor leaving the waste in the ground. Scientists who get their paychecks from Sandia/DOE concur it's best to cap the landfill and leave the waste in the ground. Heck, if you've got enough money you can hire scientists to prove peanut butter's the perfect grouting material for bathroom tile. However, those who don't get their paychecks from Sandia/DOE, like Dr. Eric Nuttall, a Professor in the Chemical and Nuclear Engineering Department at the University of New Mexico, say capping the landfill is not the best solution for this waste. Dr. Nuttall was recently quoted in an independent review conducted of the Mixed Waste Landfill:
"The nature and amounts of long lived waste stored at the Mixed Waste Landfill plus its location in a growing metropolitan area poses a potential threat to human health and the environment. If it is not excavated the site will become a DOE legacy waste issue."
Because of growing controversy over the landfill and consistent lobbying efforts by Citizen Action, the NMED has done the right thing and ordered the DOE to conduct a study to look at the full range of alternatives for waste buried at the Mixed Waste Landfill. Called a Corrective Measures Study, it is likely to be a waste of time and taxpayers' money. A number of key documents compiled by the Sandia/DOE team strongly suggest the fate of the dump has already been decided: cap it and leave it in the ground. After extensive lobbying by Citizen Action the DOE has agreed to fund an independent peer review of the Corrective Measures Study to ensure an unbiased, comprehensive study is conducted based on sound science, not agency policy. Citizen Action will be submitting the names of independent scientists for consideration on the review panel. The study is definitely a step in the right direction. It is also the first step towards meaningful public involvement - especially since the DOE has admitted the real reason for refusing to consider cleaning up the dump is because it would "set a precedent."
Is covering up waste buried at the Mixed Waste Landfill the right plan for permanent closure of this dump? Not on your life. Not for communities located in close proximity to the landfill, not for the City of Albuquerque, not for Bernalillo County, not for the State of New Mexico. Not for future land values and economic development. Not for future generations who will carry the burdens of this waste. The DOE is intentionally creating problems it will have to solve later or more likely, pawn off on other agencies to deal with. The long-term potential effects of leaving this waste in the ground on human health and the environment have yet to be seen. A public hearing will be held when it's time for the state to make a decision on the fate of the dump. That's when you, as a member of the public, have a chance to express your support - or outrage.
For further details see the Citizen Action website at: www.radfreenm.org.
Citizen Action is a 16-member
coalition of neighborhood associations and non-profit
What's buried in the Mixed Waste Landfill?
Lots of Cold War memorabilia and you-name-it wastes: light bulbs, gyroscopes, shoe covers, parachutes, mop heads, pieces of planes, trucks, vacuum cleaners, steel drums, plastic bags, boxes, laboratory equipment, top-secret stuff, bubble wrap, and maybe even an irradiated dead dog or two. The bad stuff: large quantities of toxic lead and uranium-238 (depleted uranium), and over 40 different types of radioactive wastes (not including their by-products) ranging from tritium and cobalt-60 to plutonium-234, iodine-129, technetium-99, americium-241, cesium-137, and strontium-90. Chemicals were dumped into an area known as the "radioactive acid pit" that included solvents, acids, radioactively contaminated liquids, and toluene-based "scintillation cocktails." Other waste: "test components" from two nuclear reactors and wastes shipped to Sandia from other nuclear weapons facilities such as the Nevada Test Site. Record-keeping of what went into the dump was poor, and there's potentially more buried waste we have no information about. For example, nuclear oxide fuels were sent to Sandia in steel canisters during the 1980s and used in experiments to simulate nuclear reactor meltdowns. Department memos state that an "unknown number" of canisters were disposed of in the Mixed Waste Landfill. To date we haven't been able to locate records documenting where these dangerous spent oxide fuels ended up.
To have a look at the known inventory of the landfill and quotes from selected documents obtained by our organization under the Freedom of Information Act visit the Citizen Action website at: www.radfreenm.com