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New report details scope of LANL cleanup: 20 years, $4B via Santa Fe/New Mexican

A new draft report detailing the federal government’s plans to clean up decades-old hazardous waste from nuclear weapons production during the World War II-era Manhattan Project and the Cold War says Los Alamos National Laboratory and neighboring areas won’t be free from the legacy waste for more than 20 years, and the project’s costs could reach nearly $4 billion.

The August report by the lab’s Environmental Management Office, released publicly this week, provides the clearest picture the public has seen of the scope of work left to rid the lab and surrounding canyons of radioactive waste and environmental contamination. It lists 955 sites that could contain contamination and says 5,000 cubic meters of legacy waste remain at the lab — half the total that workers began cleaning up 25 years ago.

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The lab is currently excavating plutonium-laced soil from canyons near Los Alamos. The dirt is being bagged, tested and transported to Utah for storage, The Associated Press reported earlier this week. At the beginning of the month, the lab requested a round of 45 demolition projects by the year’s end, including buildings and smaller structures.

But the process of removing thousands of barrels of radioactive waste from the lab’s Area G to a permanent storage at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad will likely not be complete for another 20 years and will cost more than $740 million, according to the report. The document notes that more investigation, testing and emergency preparedness training must be finished before the waste removal can begin again.

The report says delays in cleaning up Area G are largely due to new discoveries of contamination, two major forest fires in Los Alamos, insufficient funding and the 2014 shutdown of WIPP, the nation’s only underground nuclear waste storage site, following a radiation leak caused by a barrel of transuranic waste from the lab that burst in an underground cell.

The document also outlines how the lab will address a 65-acre site within Area G that contains underground waste pits and a vapor plume of volatile organic compounds, a project that isn’t expected to be finished until 2040. But language in the report suggests the possibility that officials could decide, instead, to bury the waste on site, a concern some critics had raised when the cleanup order was approved.

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As the lab works to clean up old waste over the next few decades, it also will be producing new plutonium pits — the grapefruit-size fission triggers inside nuclear bombs that are a key part of the government’s plan to modernize the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. Lab Director Charles McMillan has said the program to restart pit production, which will generate new nuclear waste, is 95 percent complete.

This leaves unanswered questions about where that waste will go and how much it will add to the contamination at Los Alamos.

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