Los Alamos piles on more waste

 

NEW MEXICO

With the stockpile of radioactive waste set to expand at Los Alamos National Laboratory, local watchdog groups fear that temporary storage might turn out to be forever.

Fifteen years ago, Congress made the Department of Energy responsible for taking low-level radioactive waste from America's private industries and government programs. But DOE has been slow to act, and now the agency has a backlog of 6,000 sources ranging from petroleum-detection gauges to medical radiation equipment. What's more, another 15,000 sources of similar waste are expected to pile up over the next decade. To handle the problem, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson last year ordered the Los Alamos lab to store the low-level waste under tents for three to five years.

While Los Alamos staffer Lee Leonard doesn't know where the waste is headed after Los Alamos, he says it will be safe at the lab's Area G, where it is surrounded by steel and fire retardant material within 55-gallon drums. He adds that new waste - 1,000 or so drums - pales in comparison to the 60,000 drums of defense waste already enclosed at Area G.

Critics say they're concerned that above-ground waste at Area G will be vulnerable to terrorism and natural disaster, and they point out that the Cerro Grande fire last May came to within a half-mile of the area (HCN, 6/5/00). They also worry that DOE is bringing civilian waste to Los Alamos for the first time without a definite long-term plan for it.

"Anytime they bring something here for longer than a year or two it means, 'I don't know,' " says Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog organization.

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