LANL Addresses Recent Findings of Groundwater Contamination

* Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) recently addressed concerns about groundwater contamination beneath the facility as part of its quarterly groundwater meeting. The discussion comes following the recent findings by New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) indicating that there is radioactive tritium in the springs that emanate from beneath LANL and feed the Rio Grande.

LANL argued that the springs near the river and monitoring wells at potential sources of contamination do not indicate that tritium has reached the groundwater. However, at the recent quarterly meeting, LANL noted that at least six groundwater-monitoring wells around the LANL complex contain tritium.

NMEDıs findings indicate that there is a deep groundwater pathway from LANL to the Rio Grande and that it may take as few as 60 years for LANL contamination to reach the river, rather than the thousands that LANL previously estimated.

Tritium is a radioactive element with a half-life of 12 years. It is a radioactive form of hydrogen that can combine with regular water particles to form tritiated water, which can be dangerous to human health if consumed. LANL has used thousands of Curies of tritium since 1947 and once reported releasing more than 60,000 Curies into the air in one incident.

Charlie Nylander, of LANL's groundwater monitoring program, said that their data does not indicate that there is widespread tritium contamination uphill of the river. He said, "This means as it moves toward the river, [the tritium level] is not going to get any higher."

However, a presentation at the quarterly meeting indicated that there is tritium contamination at Area G, LANL's low-level nuclear waste dump, which exceeds Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards and that those levels are increasing over time. Because tritium travels with water, such contamination can be an indicator of what may enter groundwater and begin traveling toward the river.

Although the levels of tritium reported by NMED are lower than the drinking water standards established by the EPA and do not pose a threat to human health, NMED Secretary Ron Curry said that the findings support the need for thorough cleanup of the LANL complex in order to prevent further contamination from reaching the Rio Grande.

Curry said, "This finding is yet another piece in the ... LANL water puzzle. It's these sorts of findings that make the investigation and cleanup required under NMED's Corrective Action Order so important." NMED's Corrective Action Order forces LANL to complete an inventory of contamination around its complex so that effective cleanup may begin.

This is the latest finding of potentially LANL-derived contaminants in the springs at the Rio Grande. In October 2003, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS) and consultants from The RadioActivist Campaign found low levels of radioactive cesium in one of the springs at the river.

Joni Arends, of CCNS, said, "Water is the single most important issue facing the State of New Mexico. We cannot allow LANL to continue poisoning this rapidly diminishing resource. We as a community must support NMED's call for cleanup in order to protect the Rio Grande."

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