LANL’s Area G at center of nuclear cleanup effort
LOS ALAMOS — To stand at one of the largest radioactive dumps in the nation requires a drive through two security checkpoints, a clearance badge and, for outsiders, a three-to-one guard by federal employees.
Visitors cross the final checkpoint on foot. There is just a metal gate, with stop signs and notifications that crossing this threshold means entering a nuclear facility.
The 63-acre Material Disposal Area G at Los Alamos National Laboratory holds radioactive and other hazardous waste generated by nuclear weapons production during the Manhattan Project of World War II and the Cold War that followed.
Just three feet below the dusty ground, there are nearly 40 pits and 200 shafts, containing somewhere between several hundred thousand and 11 million cubic feet of waste. Large, white structures, like joyless wedding tents, dot the mesa’s surface, holding drums of waste that are intended to be shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad and disposed of forever.
Many of these drums are especially volatile. They belong to a waste stream that was improperly packaged, causing one drum to explode at WIPP in 2014, leaking radiation and shutting down the facility for nearly three years at a $2 billion cleanup cost.
Area G, perhaps more than any other place at Los Alamos National Laboratory, represents the challenges that the U.S. Department of Energy faces in cleaning up the hundreds of waste sites at the lab while work continues to produce new or modernized nuclear weapons.
The lab recently gave reporters a rare tour of Area G and other sites contaminated by waste generated before 1999, the year the Energy Department opened WIPP. It is the nation’s only permanent disposal site for transuranic waste, which includes soil, tools, gloves and other materials that have come in contact with highly radioactive elements like plutonium, which is used in weapons production. Before WIPP opened, Area G was where the lab disposed of its transuranic waste.
A report released this spring by the Energy Department’s Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office says that out of 2,100 contaminated sites, including Area G, only about half of the cleanup at the lab has been completed after decades of work and billions of dollars spent.
The report says the initial investigation into the extent of contamination at those sites is 90 percent done, and 93 percent of the above-ground transuranic waste — 4,000 drums — has been removed from the lab since 2011.
But much of the buried waste at Area G is likely to stay there forever.
The lab could dig everything up, but “the federal government and the state don’t require it,” said a senior lab official who took the tour with reporters. Officials on the tour prohibited reporters from quoting them by name.
A volatile collection
The circumstances that led to one of the costliest nuclear accidents in U.S. history began at Area G.
A drum of waste improperly packaged with organic — rather than inorganic — kitty litter at Area G in 2013 and shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant overheated and burst underground in February 2014.
At Area G, there are 89 more drums similar to the one that burst. They are kept within the largest tent on the mesa, called the PermaCon.
Inside, the light takes on a yellowish-gray hue and the air is at least 15 degrees cooler than the April day outside. At the center of the space, behind a rope and a sign that reads “combustible restricted area,” the waste drums have been placed inside a refrigerated metal structure, like enormous eggs in an incubator.
They contain some of the most volatile waste at the site, a mix of nitric acids, kerosene, heavy metals, plutonium-239, uranium-238 and nitrate salt.
Sixty of the drums, like the one that burst at WIPP, contain the organic kitty litter. The rest of the 89 drums have the same waste but haven’t yet been mixed with an absorbent.
Before entering the tent, visitors must protect their eyes with plastic glasses and make sure their hands are devoid of wounds. Radiation is more easily absorbed into the body if it can slip through a cut. Visitors are told to avoid touching surfaces and their mouths, and to leave outside anything they don’t want to be surveyed for radioactive contamination.
Area G workers are told to make a habit of wearing gloves at all times, even at home, officials said. “Fight the way you train,” is how one person explained it.
Workers at the PermaCon wore purple gloves and were dressed head to boots in a yellow, plastic material that forms a protective hood and thick goggles.
A sign on a door leading to where the drums are kept informs workers that they will be exposed to 0.1 rem of radiation per hour. The average American receives 0.6 rem per year, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The drums are kept at 57 degrees Fahrenheit and monitored daily to ensure the pressure and heat do not change. If a drum starts to heat, officials can open large vents added to the drums and reduce pressure, but releasing some radiation, too, within the PermaCon.
From Area G it takes just two minutes to walk onto San Ildefonso Pueblo land; The community of White Rock is one mile from the site.
As reporters and officials exited, workers traced radiation detection monitors slowly across palms and the soles of shoes.
A repackaging process
By May, a 3-mile stretch of the road between Area G and a waste repackaging facility will be closed off daily as drums are transported uphill to the Waste Characterization, Reduction and Repackaging Facility, which looks like a series of oversized garages.
As reporters entered the facility, one worker whispered, “Hold your breath.”
Over roughly two months, lab workers will repackage the waste in two-hour shifts using a glove box — a large, sealed container. Inserting their hands into gloves attached to the box, the workers will open the drums.
The waste will be combined with water and zeolite — a fine, gray mineral mined in Western states, including New Mexico, and sold as absorbent cat litter — and stirred in an industrial kitchen mixer within the glove box. Once the waste is mixed, it will be funneled into new “daughter” drums and returned to Area G for later shipment to WIPP, officials said.
An official said zeolite was chosen as an absorbent in part because it eliminates any confusion about the type of kitty litter that can be used.
Tacked to the glove box is a printed sheet of paper with numbered instructions for how to mix the waste. It’s pinned just above the radiation detection panel that workers must press their hands against the moment they are removed from the glove box.
Fire remains a threat
Area G is situated on a mesa between two canyons, and wildfire is a threat to the drums waiting for repackaging and shipment to WIPP.
In 2000, the Cerro Grande Fire burned through both canyons simultaneously, creating extremely high temperatures on the mesa. If this happened again, an official said, the lab would cover the drums with fire blankets but could not move them. They could only hope that the flames subside before the drums overheat and begin a reaction like the one that closed WIPP.
The Los Conchas Fire in 2011 burned within four miles of Area G.
The administrations of Govs. Bill Richardson and Susana Martinez have sought to expedite the removal of vulnerable canisters from lab property. But deadlines for the lab to do so, first by 2010 and then by June 2014, went unmet, in part because waste shipments to WIPP stalled following the radiation leak caused by the Los Alamos drum.
Waste disposal at Area G is expected to stop next year when the last open pit is filled. The lab’s newly constructed Transuranic Waste Facility, an outdoor storage site, will temporarily hold newly generated waste before shipment off-site. The lab also is seeking approval from the New Mexico Environment Department for temporary storage at the plutonium processing facility where pits, the triggers for nuclear weapons, are produced. Pits are similar to small atomic bombs.
But the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent agency, and others have raised concerns about storing radioactive waste at these locations. New waste sites, even those intended to be temporary, increases the potential for dangerous waste to remain on lab property long term.
On the drive to Area G on a winding road within the national laboratory complex, in a lab “taxi” van playing 1980s rock, many buildings appeared more like prison structures than research facilities, with thick, glass windows — or no windows at all — and tall, barbed-wire fences.
One official remarked on the great irony of the work: The first atomic bomb took only 27 months to create, but like the myth of Pandora’s box, it unfurled a seemingly endless stream of deadly waste.
Last September, the Energy Department said the remaining scope of legacy waste cleanup is estimated to cost $3.8 billion, and it will take 24 more years to finish shipping the rest of the waste to permanent storage and decontaminating the land.
If all goes as planned, it will take Los Alamos almost a century to clean up the remnants of the nation’s first generation of nuclear weapons. All the while, tiny, new nuclear bombs are being made.
Kaitlin Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office, said the “biggest priorities right now are the safety of the workers and the public as we execute our mission.”
Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or email@example.com.