- Associated Press - Monday, March 16, 2020

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Top New Mexico officials are concerned the U.S. government isn’t taking seriously its obligations to clean up waste left behind by decades of nuclear research and bomb-making at one of the nation’s premier laboratories.

The birthplace of the atomic bomb, Los Alamos National Laboratory would see only a fraction of the $6 billion the U.S. Energy Department is proposing to spend next year on cleanup work nationwide. Members of the state’s delegation are pushing to boost the funding, saying a reduction of about $100 million is unjustifiable and sends the wrong message to the community.

“Right now the (Trump) administration is asking more and more of New Mexico, but prioritizing it less and less,” said U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico. “People in our state - including our governor and local leaders in northern New Mexico - have noticed and they are not happy.”

The state in 2016 signed a revised consent order governing the cleanup of hazardous waste and contamination at Los Alamos’ sprawling campus. Critics said it amounted to a step backward as the previous agreement had more teeth to compel more comprehensive cleanup through requirements for investigating and monitoring sites and specific deadlines. Lab officials argue the revised order created more flexible goals for dealing with large and complex problems.

With the threat of less funding for environmental management, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration is in the process of reconsidering the consent order. Public meetings started in January with the aim of gathering information on the effectiveness of the agreement.

U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette testified during a recent congressional budget hearing that Los Alamos has millions in carry-over dollars so the reduced request for the next fiscal year isn’t expected to affect the lab’s ability to meet its cleanup milestones.

The leftover funds have state officials suggesting that the Energy Department isn’t working quickly or efficiently enough on cleanup activities.

“This argues for a stronger consent order with clear milestones and consequences for not achieving them,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham.

While the state fined DOE $58,000 last year for not complying with the consent order, Meyers Sackett said New Mexico needs to be more aggressive in holding the agency accountable.

Contamination at Los Alamos ranges from chromium and perchlorates to high explosives. Watchdog groups also say plutonium has been detected below the surface of Area G, the lab’s largest waste dump. The lab also plans to cap and cover hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of toxic and radioactive wastes at the site.

Critics said the problem of legacy waste will be exacerbated when the lab resumes production of the plutonium cores that are used to trigger weapons within the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Federal officials have set a deadline of 2030 for increased core production, with work being split between Los Alamos and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. At stake are jobs and billions of dollars to revamp existing buildings or construct new factories.

The Energy Department’s Office of Environmental Management is responsible for cleaning up sites in 11 states. Under the New Mexico order, that work is scheduled to be done by 2036.

The proposed budget calls for $1.3 billion for managing and treating about 56 million gallons (212 million liters) of radioactive liquid and chemical waste in underground storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a former nuclear weapons production site in Washington state. Advocates there also are concerned about budget cuts.

Tennessee’s Oak Ridge site would get more than $430 million, while $271 million would go toward meeting a 2023 cleanup milestone in Idaho. Los Alamos would get $120 million to continue addressing surface and groundwater contamination.

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