ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Officials at one of the nation’s top nuclear weapons laboratories are reiterating their promise to focus on cleaning up Cold War-era contamination left behind by decades of research and bomb-making.
But New Mexico environment officials and watchdog groups remain concerned about the pace and the likelihood that the federal government has significantly understated its environmental liability at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The U.S. Department of Energy has been estimating that it will be 2036 before cleanup at the lab — which played a key role in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II — is complete. Federal officials acknowledged during a meeting Thursday night that the date hasn’t changed but they are reviewing whether new risks will boost the need for more funding and more time.
Michael Mikolanis, head of the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management at Los Alamos, addressed questions about a 2021 independent audit that found the agency’s liability for environmental cleanup topped more than a half-trillion dollars for the last fiscal year and is growing. That includes understated liability at Los Alamos by more than $880 million.
Mikolanis confirmed that a recent review turned up new information that increased the liabilities for cleanup beyond what officials previously understood.
“Certainly can’t say yes or tell you no that the date is being changed but obviously with increased scope … either we would need additional funding to do that or stretch out the dates,” he said. “We are currently evaluating that. We have made no decision.”
The DOE is facing a legal challenge by the state of New Mexico over setting and meeting the milestones of its current cleanup agreement with the state, which was signed in 2016. State officials found the federal government’s plan for the previous fiscal year to be deficient.
Watchdog groups said it wasn’t until the state sued in February 2021 that the DOE proposed boosting the cleanup budget at the lab by about one-third. Before that budgets were flat, with the groups arguing that DOE had no incentive to seek more funding.
“The conclusion I draw from it is the New Mexico Environment Department gets a lot more from the stick than it does from the carrot with respect to making the laboratory and DOE truly committed to comprehensive cleanup,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
Chris Catechis, director of the Environment Department’s resource protection division, said during the meeting that despite the pending litigation, the state wants to continue working with federal officials on moving the needle when it comes to addressing plumes of chromium contamination, the removal of tons of contaminated soil and other projects at the lab.
“We agree that we don’t feel the cleanup is moving as quickly as we’d like to see it but with that said, we don’t want to walk away from the process,” Catechis said.
Some elected officials and other critics also have raised concerns about how the federal government’s plan to boost production at Los Alamos of the plutonium cores used in the nation’s nuclear arsenal will result in additional waste that will add to disposal liabilities.
Officials indicated during the meeting that the National Nuclear Security Administration has funding for a site-wide environmental review of operations. While they declined to provide more details, advocates have argued for years that the environmental consequences and cost-effectiveness of operations at the lab deserve more scrutiny.