ID CANYON — A dirt trail shaded by ponderosa pines drops down the slope of this small canyon below the Los Alamos Nature Center and a recreation center.
The canyon became a dumping ground during the Manhattan Project. Old pipes, washing machines, culverts and other debris from the era were tossed into the canyon by nearby homeowners and Los Alamos National Laboratory staff.
The nature center, graced by new gardens and an expansive view of the Jemez Mountains, sits near the site of a chemical waste treatment plant used by scientists who built the first nuclear weapons. From 1943 to 1964, the treatment plant shed into the canyon more than 30 million gallons of treated and untreated liquid radioactive and chemical waste laced with tritium, strontium, plutonium and other radioactive materials that settled on rocks and soil. It was one of several canyons around Los Alamos used as dumping grounds by the lab during the Manhattan Project and the subsequent Cold War.
“The scientists knew this canyon was contaminated back in the 1950s and ’60s,” said Greg Mello, a former inspector with the state Environment Department and now a partner in the nuclear watchdog Los Alamos Study Group with his wife, Trish. “Their children played here.”
Air, land, water and people all were exposed to hazardous and radioactive waste products while scientists and engineers were producing the Trinity test bomb and subsequent nuclear weapons.
Uranium miners, scientists, lab technicians and people living near research facilities or test sites around the United States during the heyday of the Manhattan Project were exposed to the highest immediate levels of radiation. They’ve sought compensation from the federal government for a litany of maladies and cancers related to their work on nuclear weapons.
At Los Alamos, lab workers dumped waste in trenches and pits, including those at Area G, a 63-acre dumpsite that opened in 1957. This includes thousands of cubic feet of low-level and mixed transuranic waste such as old lab coats, tools and other debris.
Nuclear waste is exempt from many federal environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act. The New Mexico Environment Department, after a court battle, gained some measure of regulatory control over the lab’s legacy waste only because it is mixed with other hazardous chemical waste. Under an agreement with the state, the lab in 2014 was on track to remove 3,706 cubic meters of hazardous and radioactive waste stored in above-ground containers and ship it to the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad when a lab container ruptured at the underground facility, halting operations.
A lab official said last year LANL still had thousands of cubic feet of contaminated waste left in 35 pits and 200 shafts at Area G. “The main concern is that Area G is smack dab over the regional aquifer,” said Scott Kovac, of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, noting the groundwater table is between 900 and 1,000 feet below the surface.
Uranium miners and millers developed lung cancer and kidney cancers, among other illnesses. Scientists and other workers exposed to radiation from above-ground tests developed cancers of the lung, thyroid, esophagus, stomach and pancreas, as well as leukemia and other maladies.
More than 107,141 nuclear research workers and their families have received some of more than $11.6 billion in compensation and medical coverage as of July 5, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. More than a fourth of workers filing claims have cancer types recognized by the federal government as ones that can be caused by exposure to radioactive materials.
More than 4,900 former Los Alamos National Laboratory workers from World War II to the present have received $566 million for health problems related to their work at the lab.
Still, the costs of cleaning up legacy waste continue to climb. The Department of Energy’s life-cycle environmental liability for thousands of contaminated facilities and management of massive quantities of radioactive waste rose to $427 billion in 2014 from $297 billion in 2006, according to the agency’s fiscal report. The life cycle includes all of the department’s liabilities until the waste is finally cleaned up to federal standards — a process still years away in some locations.
The estimated liability for the legacy waste is higher than the combined state budgets of New Mexico, Texas, California, Arizona and Colorado.