Hazardous-waste safety violations continue at Los Alamos National Laboratory

Dumping of radioactive materials in the Irish Sea remains controversial

Department of Energy backs away from plans to sell contaminated scrap metals

*During its 1998 inspections of Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL), the New Mexico Environment Department's Radioactive Materials Bureau found that the lab continues in its long-established pattern of violating the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act and other hazardous waste management regulations. State regulators proposed a penalty of nearly $850,000 for the 1998 violations, only two weeks after fining the lab over $1.1 million for infractions during 1997.

The New Mexico Environment Department (or NMED) cited a total of 30 violations in its most recent compliance order, including the improper marking of hazardous waste containers, exceeding time limits for waste storage, and failures to test chemicals or metals to identify them as hazardous waste. Moreover, the state alleged that the lab has failed to keep proper paperwork, perform inspections, and maintain emergency equipment at facilities where the hazardous materials are handled.

While lab officials claim that the alleged violations never presented a direct risk to the public, state regulators believe that the lab's non-compliance with safety regulations could result in leaks, airborne releases, and mistakes in the handling and disposal of hazardous materials. "We don't consider these to be minor," said Greg Lewis, Director of Water and Waste Management at the NMED. "Those could have significant impacts."

The latest violations are similar to those cited for 1997, continuing a series of infractions which the state has found almost every year since 1990. The lab has had compliance problems ever since inspections began in the mid-1980s.

*Three years after the British government admitted that thousands of tons of radioactive materials were dumped at six different locations in the Irish Sea, a government-appointed task force reported that the waste poses no serious risks to human health and marine life. The radioactive waste was dumped between 1950 and 1976 and includes contaminated substances from Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities, as well as industrial materials from the British Ministry of Defense.

The task force's risk assessment, which was based on documentation provided by the British government, has drawn widespread criticism from the British Green and Labor Parties. Patricia McKenna, of the Green Party, said that "the report's assertion that the dumping did not constitute a health hazard was simply irresponsible on the part of a national government supposed to safeguard the health and well-being of [the] people."

The report mentions the possibility that some of the radioactive substances may be dislodged from the seabed and be washed ashore, just as other wastes dumped in the Irish Sea washed up on Scottish and Irish coastlines in 1995 and 1998. "Although it appears highly unlikely, the possibility of return of the dumped material cannot be completely discounted," the report says.

*Facing criticism from politicians and industry leaders, the Department of Energy (or DOE) is backing away from plans to sell thousands of tons of radioactive scrap metals left over from manufacturing nuclear weapons to the civilian recycled metals market. DOE stated that the human health impacts from the release of the materials need to be more thoroughly investigated.

The 1997 proposal has encountered strong opposition from nuclear watchdog groups and members of Congress, who fear that the radioactive metal could end up in consumer products, such as stainless steel tableware and braces for children's teeth. The proposed action would have included "volumetrically contaminated" metals, which are radioactive throughout, and the radiation cannot be easily removed.

Moreover, the plans have drawn criticism from the steel industry itself. "It would hurt our workers and our facilities, if it isn't in fact safe, and the people won't ever believe it's safe," said Thomas Sneeringer, senior vice president of the American Iron and Steel Institute. DOE had originally intended to sell 6,000 tons of contaminated nickel for $41 million later this year, and had slated another 10,000 tons of radioactive nickel for future sales.

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