LANL Considers Storage Facility for Transuranic Waste

Fernald Cleanup Three Years Behind Schedule

* After a six month effort by a coalition of Santa Fe activists, Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) is considering building a permanent storage facility to house 2,000 drums of plutonium-contaminated waste. The drums are currently stored in plastic tents at Technical Area 54, at the Area G low-level radioactive dump. Due to extreme drought conditions and potential for wildfire, activists again raised the possibility of LANL's building a permanent facility. At their urging, Joe Vozella, of the LANL office of the Department of Energy (or DOE), announced this week that the group of DOE and LANL employees responsible for managing the Cerro Grande fire cleanup fund is considering spending $5 million to build the 10,000 square foot facility. Vozella said, "We're looking at something more permanent, more robust, that could potentially withstand an earthquake or some other accident."

Currently, the 2,000 drums comprise 61% of the aboveground public health risk at Area G until they can be shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (or WIPP) near Carlsbad. DOE has proposed two plans for shipping the waste to WIPP more quickly, but they could take as long as eight years or more. Although the original plan for the waste called for shipment by 2035, the most recent DOE plans call for shipment as early as 2004.

Vozella says DOE is uncertain of the utility of the facility in light of the two other plans. Nevertheless, activists are pleased that LANL is considering a permanent facility. Joni Arends, of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, said, "We wish that DOE would have done this after the 1996 Dome fire, but it's excellent that they are addressing the issue now."

*The Department of Energy's Inspector General (or EIG) released a report earlier this month that indicates that cleanup of the Fernald site in Ohio will be delayed by as many as three years. The report says that as of December 2001, only 35% of the cleanup activities that would be required for the scheduled 2006 closure date have been completed. At the current cleanup rate, the EIG estimates that Fernald will not close until 2009.

From 1954 through 1989, the Fernald Environmental Management Project was dedicated to the production of high-purity uranium metals for use in DOE's nuclear weapons program. Production operations at the site concluded in 1991 and the cleanup contract was awarded to Fluor Fernald, Inc.

Congress requires that DOE request enough funding to meet the goals that are outlined in the closure agreements for some DOE sites, including Fernald, by a 2006 deadline or earlier. The EIG's report claims that DOE did not seek adequate funding to ensure closure by 2006. Through December 2001, DOE had spent $2.8 billion at Fernald and Fluor estimates that an additional $1.7 billion will be needed to complete site closure.

If Fernald is not closed by 2006, DOE could incur an additional $152 million in infrastructure support costs. EIG recommended that DOE modify the Fluor contract to require site closure by 2006. EIG's report states, "Any delays in site closure have an obvious impact on the safety and health risks at [Fernald.]"

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