Unregulated Nuclear Waste Discovered at Sandia National Laboratory
At least 26 different sites at Sandia National Laboratory store radioactive and hazardous materials that are not regulated by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED).
Citizen Action, a public interest group, found indications of these sites in historical documents, which they requested from the Department of Energy (DOE) under the Freedom of Information Act. NMED was not aware that these materials were present at Sandia before Citizen Action brought them to their attention.
Sandia, located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is one of the nation's three largest nuclear weapons research laboratories and has been in operation since 1949. The waste in the 26 newly discovered sites was generated by experiments that simulate nuclear meltdowns. Much of the waste is decades old.
The materials are disposed of in concrete lined holes dug into the ground near the nuclear reactors at Sandia, and in vaults and bunkers at the Manzano Storage Facility. Some of the materials are so active that they must be stored in water to avoid a nuclear reaction.
According to the documents provided by DOE, the sites house over 30 tons of uranium-235 enriched to various degrees. Uranium-235 is a key ingrediant used to make nuclear bombs. The documents also indicate the presence of more than 50 grams of plutonium, fission products, mixed plutonium-uranium oxides, spent fuel, and other hazardous materials at the sites.
Citizen Action filed for the release of two additional documents which would give more information about the contents at the sites. However, DOE is withholding them on the grounds that disclosure of these documents "could have an adverse effect on the health and safety of the public."
Sandia and the DOE have also refused to answer the inquiries made by NMED to identify the volume of radioactive materials disposed of at the 26 sites. They insist that the materials at the sites are not under the state's regulatory jurisdiction.
Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, NMED has regulatory jurisdiction over hazardous materials and mixed waste. The inventory released by DOE indicates that hazardous materials may be present at the sites. If these materials are disposed of there, then the sites fall under the regulatory authority of NMED.
In order to determine the status of this waste, NMED has begun an investigation. They will review all documentation, including additional classified information which has not been released to the public.
Activists believe that this investigation will determine whether the waste falls under NMED jurisdiction. Sue Dayton, of Citizen Action, said, "We're very pleased that the New Mexico Environment Department is finally investigating the fact that there are 26 sites at Sandia National Laboratory containing radioactive and hazardous waste that up until now have been a secret - both to the regulators and the public."
In a related story, Citizen Action has filed a lawsuit against NMED for their plan to bury the Mixed Waste Landfill, a Cold War waste site located at Sandia. Waste would be burried under a thin layer of dirt rather than excavation of the waste and proper clean up.