Los Alamos National Laboratory has been one of the country’s foremost nuclear research centers ever since the atomic bomb was developed there in the 1940s. Weapons and engineering programs continue there today, but the U.S. Department of Energy is still cleaning up contamination left over from World War II.
When the U.S. government was running the atomic bomb program at Los Alamos, they generated a lot of dangerous waste—things like plutonium, mercury and chromium, which in many cases, they just piped off the edge of nearby canyons. Now the lab has moved outside of town, but much of the pollution remains.
“We would have expected what came out of this pipe was liquid waste. And in this case we’re sure it had plutonium in it,” said Todd Haagenstad, who directs soil cleanup projects in Los Alamos. He pointed to a bare patch of ground marked with red flags where a disposal pipe used to be. “And so that waste would come out and it would come down that pipe, and it would come out onto the side of the canyon here.”
Throughout the summer, a team of specially trained workers has been excavating the plutonium-laden dirt one bulldozer load at a time. It’s a tightly-enforced process all taking place on rugged canyon edges, where a misplaced footstep can send you tumbling. First each load of dirt gets put into a large bag. Then a radiation specialist tests the workers and the bag of dirt for radioactivity levels. Once the supervisor gives the go-ahead, the bag is loaded onto an 18-wheeler bound for a disposal site in Utah.
This crew goes through this tedious process about six times each workday. But it’s just one part of a massive effort to clean up old pollution in Los Alamos that also includes pumping out a contaminated aquifer and building new stormwater systems to catch polluted rainwater.
“Our cost estimates are about $2.9-$3 billion,” said Doug Hintze, who runs environmental cleanups at Los Alamos for the Department of Energy. Hintze said the DOE has cleaned up the most dangerous sites. Now it’s just a matter of restoring the more remote polluted areas to safe condition.
“The immediate hazard to the public, there is none," Hintze said. "It’s not to downplay the concerns that the public has on this.”
And there are certainly concerns. People in San Ildefonso Pueblo on the eastern edge of the labs have complained of animals getting sick from polluted water. Plutonium has been found downstream in Cochiti Lake. Even Isleta Pueblo some 70 miles to the south said they’ve measured pollution from the laboratory. And the city of Santa Fe shuts off its water intake from the Rio Grande when it’s raining in Los Alamos in case anything’s washing into the river.
All said, the cleanup at Los Alamos has been a contentious process, to put it mildly.
“It’s gutless,” said Jay Coghlan, director of the anti-nuclear weapons group Nuke Watch New Mexico. “The Department of Energy and Los Alamos Labs, they need to have their feet held to the fire.”
Nuke Watch recently filed a lawsuit asking a judge to throw out a new cleanup agreement between the state and the federal government—called a consent order—saying it is ineffective and was put together without the required public input.
“They’ve now come out with a new consent order that lacks any true enforceability,” Coghlan said. "For example, the department of energy or Los Alamos lab can simply claim that it doesn’t have enough money for cleanup and then get out of cleanup. Or claim that it’s too technically difficult.”
The New Mexico Environment Department has criticized the DOE’s cleanup proposals, too, but they’ve called Nuke Watch’s lawsuit “frivolous” and are now seeking to block it in court.
The cleanup was supposed to be finished last year, but the DOE didn’t get enough money to meet that deadline. As it stands now, it’ll be another 20 years before all the waste from the Manhattan Project site and other sites in Los Alamos is taken care of.
KUNM's Public Health New Mexico Project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Con Alma Health Foundation, and the McCune Charitable Foundation. Find out more at publichealthnm.org.