ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The price tag for cleaning up waste from the once top-secret Manhattan Project and subsequent Cold War-era nuclear research at Los Alamos National Laboratory has more than doubled in the last seven years, and independent federal investigators say federal officials will have to do better to track costs and progress.
The Government Accountability Office in a report issued Wednesday said while some improvements have been made, the U.S. Energy Department hasn’t taken a comprehensive approach to prioritizing cleanup activities at the New Mexico lab.
The report came as federal officials hosted a forum Thursday in Los Alamos to talk about cleaning up contaminated soil and groundwater and handling hazardous waste generated by decades of research that started with development of the atomic bomb during the 1940s.
Ike White, who heads DOE's Office of Environmental Management, said the release this week of the “Oppenheimer” film makes it a good time to talk about the legacy that came from the dawning of the atomic age. Part of the environmental cleanup mission requires an examination of history, White told those gathered at the historic Fuller Lodge in the heart of Los Alamos.
He characterized the nation's multibillion-dollar cleanup program as the third largest liability on the books for the federal government — behind only Social Security and Medicaid.
“It is a large, it is a complicated, it a technologically challenging program,” White said. “It is extremely important to a lot of people who live across the country from coast to coast, and all of us who are part of that program feel an extraordinary responsibility to make that program successful.”
Still, the GAO pointed to weaknesses in oversight by the Office of Environmental Management at Los Alamos. They said failure to finalize a performance baseline for the cleanup contractor prevented the office from tracking ongoing costs, the scope of work and progress.
New Mexico environmental regulators said the report validates their longstanding concerns — that cleanup is mired in unnecessary delays that threaten public health and the environment. New Mexico Environment Department spokesman Matthew Maez pointed specifically to the federal government's responsibility to protect drinking water.
“The frequent delays and lack of transparency in cleanup must be remedied,” he said. “We hope this report galvanizes DOE-EM to enact change in Los Alamos.”
Environmental management officials at Los Alamos said they expect to complete remaining cleanup activities at the lab by 2043 at an estimated cost of about $7 billion.
Michael Mikolanis, who heads DOE's environmental management office at Los Alamos, said Thursday that his team is developing a long-term strategic vision for the remaining cleanup that will be based on priorities identified through numerous meetings with state regulators, the leaders of neighboring Native American communities and others.
While White agrees with the GAO that prioritizing the scope of work is important, he said optimum efficiency is not always the most important factor.
“One of the things that we've arranged with our strategic vision effort and our stakeholder engagement is to try to make sure we're doing that prioritization of the work in a way that is transparent to the community and that doesn't just reflect a sort of bureaucratic set of values," he said.
Don Hancock with the Albuquerque-based nuclear watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center said the DOE in 2010 had issued a roadmap that included a goal of disposing of most of the transuranic waste — that which contains manmade elements heavier than uranium — by the end of 2015.
He asked the DOE officials at the forum about the timeline and how much waste remained.
Mikolanis said his office plans to unveil an interactive map this fall that will include estimates of the waste at Los Alamos that is stored above ground and that which has yet to be unearthed.
White said estimates for the cleanup project nationwide are hard to calculate because the ultimate volume of waste can change depending on the scope of a project.
The GAO report includes several recommendations for the DOE that include implementing a plan to account for cost and schedule increases, building trust with state regulators and including consideration of potential risks when making decisions.