What’s still hanging around Los Alamos & what we should learn from it

There’s an excellent article (from AP) about the detritus in New Mexico from early bomb production there that still presents hazards; here’s the link at Forbes (it’s also on Huffpost, SFGate, and many others): “Los Alamos under renewed environmental scrutiny”:  http://www.forbes.com/feeds/ap/2011/10/01/general-us-nuke-lab-cleanup_8711576.html

There are lots of reasons this issue should be top priority, but the reason it is getting attention at the moment is that if fire threatens again, as it did this last summer, there’d be a threat to public safety and no time to do anything about it.  There’s radioactive debris and contaminated soil in canyons through which storm waters flow into the Rio Grande, too.  The article is good at giving a vivid picture of what’s physically still  around that needs to be dealt with.

Evidently, there has been money appropriated and spent, but the job is not done. Actually, strictly speaking, with this kind of contamination, the job is never done — we just pass on the need for expensive site maintenance and movement of materials from one vulnerable place to a less vulnerable one like an intergenerational hot potato.  The article is also good at making that clear.  In many cases, constant monitoring is required to make sure there are no dangerous leaks.  Often, it needs to be moved again years later, even if that wasn’t forseen or planned on when it was first put someplace.

More precisely, the part of the job we need to do right now — should have already done by now — is not done. There are two points I found especially striking:

— Even if we knew where everything was, and exactly what to do with it, that wouldn’t solve the problem.  It needs to be funded.  There is a consent decree to clean up at least part of it, but, the article reports: “Congress, however, has cut the Los Alamos cleanup request for $358 million to $185 million, raising the question of the lab’s ability to meet the consent decree”, and

— the massive uncertainty surrounding radioactive materials disposed of, when not even a century has passed yet: ” Some 800 contaminated areas remain untouched, including nine of 26 dump sites. Like Area B, lab officials have no idea what some of those sites contain. [. . .]  Down the hill from Area B for example, is another site that officials say could be even worse.”

Even for areas where a little more is known about where to look, the whole situation makes you want to cry:  “The canyons that unfurl beneath the lab complex are also a concern. During the early years, liquid waste was simply drained from buildings out over the cliffs.”

The article is just about this legacy waste, and the issue of legacy waste from weapons production is generally seen as separate from the issue of what to do with spent fuel from commercial reactors.   There is often talk of “closing the fuel cycle” as a way of making the whole issue of dealing with spent fuel moot.  However, after following that issue for awhile, I don’t think that is really a practical solution to the problem of waste, since the reactors needed to close the fuel cycle currently being considered produce hazardous waste of their own.

The issue of legacy waste from weapons is rightfully considered separate in some sense:  it is a different political problem, and the radioactive materials dealt with and how they were disposed of, are different.  But I see some commonalities that mean we need to think about what should be learned from the current mess we have been handed from the past generation:  the nation is still producing more spent fuel from commercial electricity production each year, and there is no plan about where to put it that won’t leave our descendants in the same position in which the previous generation has left ours.

We need to protect ourselves from the mess our ancestors left us, and resolve not to make it worse than it already is for the next generation.  Where should these responsibilities fit into our energy planning?

Added on October 2nd, 6 pm:  Of course, it is not just the spent fuel that commercial nuclear power operation is likely to leave as a legacy to the next generation.  Technically informed people know that, practically speaking,  there are likely to be accidents.  This evening’s news from Japan is a reminder of that: “Plutonium found 40Km from Fukushima plant”  http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7e3af460-ece6-11e0-be97-00144feab49a.html#ixzz1ZfFb3seE

Plutonium has been found in six places far away from the plant already, and, due to “plutonium’s long half-life and the potential for even small amounts to pose a health hazard if ingested”, you’d think it should be cleaned up as soon as possible. But the problem of limited clean-up funds and/or capabilities arises here, too, even in a context in which the world’s eyes are upon it and the rest of the world begs to help:  according to the article in the Financial Times, government officials are saying that “clean-up efforts should still concentrate on the far greater amounts of radioactive caesium contaminating the area.”

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