Lowered deadline standards on new nuclear cleanup plan worries some

Criticism of a controversial new agreement between the state and the federal government on how to clean up legacy waste in and around Los Alamos National Laboratory often has one thing in common—deadlines. Most agreements between states and the federal government to clean up nuclear waste have fixed deadlines set for benchmarks. If the federal […]

Lowered deadline standards on new nuclear cleanup plan worries some

Criticism of a controversial new agreement between the state and the federal government on how to clean up legacy waste in and around Los Alamos National Laboratory often has one thing in common—deadlines.

Shipment of waste from Los Alamos National Labs to WIPP. Photo Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory cc
Shipment of waste from Los Alamos National Labs to WIPP. Photo Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory cc

Most agreements between states and the federal government to clean up nuclear waste have fixed deadlines set for benchmarks. If the federal Department of Energy misses one of these deadlines, it can then be sanctioned and penalized by the state.

“The Department of Energy hates penalties,” Scott Kovac, a research and operations director with Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said in an interview. “A deadline might shake out some funding from its budget.”

For 11 years, a previous consent agreement between DOE and the state Environment Department set strict deadlines like these in New Mexico. Not any longer.

The new consent order between the two agencies, finalized last month, features two types of deadlines.

One set, called “targets,” don’t have any mechanisms for enforcement. The other set, called “milestones,” are enforceable and can technically lead to sanctions. But they renew every year and are decided on through negotiations between DOE and New Mexico.

This, according to critics, effectively puts DOE in charge of cleanup rather than the state.

Jon Block, a Santa Fe attorney helping Nuclear Watch in a lawsuit against the Environment Department over the cleanup issue, said consent orders on waste cleanup are supposed to allow states to hold the federal government accountable to complete the clean up.

Instead, he argued that the state Environment Department is doing the opposite.

“They’ve turned over the cleanup to the polluter,” Block said in an interview. “Instead of being the enforcer of noncompliance, they’re the cooperator, the negotiator, ‘we’re your pal.’”

Block says this presents a problem because DOE’s approach to cleaning up nuclear waste is to “do the least work possible and spend the least amount of money.”

A spokeswoman with DOE wrote in an email to NM Political Report that the new consent order better prioritizes completing cleanup and “minimizes the duplication of investigative and analytical work and documentation.”

If the state feels that DOE isn’t following the new consent order, the state can file for injunctive relief against DOE.

DOE’s current budget request for total waste cleanup funding across the country amounts to $5.3 billion. That’s less than the $9.2 billion the agency is requesting from U.S. Congress for its weapons budget.

The new consent order also gives DOE power to “update” the Los Alamos cleanup deadlines based on issues like “actual work progress, changed conditions and changes in anticipated funding levels.”

To Kovac, this means that if DOE loses some of its money, the agency can use that as an excuse to not meet even the less flexible deadlines set under the new consent order.

A spokeswoman with the Environment Department also did not immediately return requests to comment for this story. We will add any response we receive to this story.

Under the old consent order, DOE often missed the stronger deadlines for cleanup at Los Alamos, which may have played a role in the new deadline structure.

In a prepared statement last month, Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn promised the new consent order “will accelerate the pace of environment restoration activities in and around Los Alamos” and “prioritize cleanup activities.”

Flynn also said the department wants the federal government to spike its yearly Los Alamos cleanup budget to $255 million, an increase from $189 million last year. DOE estimates total Los Alamos legacy cleanup will cost $3.8 billion and take 19 years to complete.

Actually getting that money, however, is another story.

DOE and U.S. Congress may prioritize nuclear waste cleanup in other states with stronger consent orders and larger penalties for noncompliance.

“When agreements have milestone [deadlines] that need to be met, that in theory drives the [federal] budget,” Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program at the Southwest Research and Information Center, said in an interview.

Los Alamos National Labs, Wikicommons
Los Alamos National Labs, Wikicommons

Bob Alvarez, a former DOE deputy assistant secretary under President Bill Clinton, added that fixed deadlines for waste cleanup “indicate a level of militancy and seriousness” from local governments.

“The absence of deadlines does give DOE a great deal of latitude in what their schedules and budgets are going to deal with,” Alvarez said in an interview.

But other factors can outweigh fixed deadlines in competition for federal cleanup dollars.

The Hanford Site in Washington State, for example, usually gets more than $2 billion a year from DOE for cleanup of its legacy waste. Hanford contains roughly two-thirds of all nuclear waste in the country, much higher than Los Alamos.

The federal lab at Hanford also mostly shut down after the Cold War, meaning that today legacy waste cleanup is its main focus.

Los Alamos, on the other hand, is still “one of the principle sites of the nuclear weapons complex,” according to Alvarez.

“They’re not as dependent on cleanup money as they are on nuclear weapons operations spending,” he said.

Update (9:20 pm): Added statement from DOE spokeswoman. 

We're ad free

That means that we rely on support from readers like you. Help us keep reporting on the most important New Mexico Stories by donating today.

Related

Senators throw support to embattled Ivey-Soto

Senators throw support to embattled Ivey-Soto

By Justin Horwath, New Mexico In Dept Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto is running for a fourth term despite the state Democratic Party’s decision to censure…
AG announces legislative priorities for upcoming special session

AG announces legislative priorities for upcoming special session

Attorney General Raúl Torrez announced on Thursday his legislative priorities for July’s special legislative session, including the creation of a crime victim’s unit to…
Correa Hemphill to step down from legislature

Correa Hemphill to step down from legislature

State Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, a Democrat from Silver City, won’t seek reelection in the general election in November, leaving SD 28, a swing…
EPA announces $18.9M in funding to address PFAS contamination in New Mexico

EPA announces $18.9M in funding to address PFAS contamination in New Mexico

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded the New Mexico Environment Department nearly $19 million to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water.…
Environmental historian reflects on the legacies of Aldo Leopold and the Gila Wilderness

Environmental historian reflects on the legacies of Aldo Leopold and the Gila Wilderness

One hundred years ago, conservationist Aldo Leopold proposed designating 500,000 acres of land in the Gila National Forest as an area where no roads…

A rare NM lizard is now listed as endangered

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the dunes sagebrush lizard to the list of endangered species on Friday and is expected to designate…
Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican The main things that bring Brayan Chavez to school every day: Seeing, talking to and engaging with…
Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican Brittany Behenna Griffith has a laundry list of adjectives to describe the ideal special education teacher:…
Lawmakers must find consensus on competing education spending plans

Lawmakers must find consensus on competing education spending plans

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican A challenging task awaits New Mexico lawmakers in the next 30 days: Reconciling three very different…
Heinrich questions FDA leadership on baby formula safety, mifepristone

Heinrich questions FDA leadership on baby formula safety, mifepristone

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf answered questions about the safety of human milk formula and mifepristone on Wednesday. Sen. Martin…
Health workers fear it’s profits before protection as CDC revisits airborne transmission

Health workers fear it’s profits before protection as CDC revisits airborne transmission

Amy Maxmen, KFF Health News Four years after hospitals in New York City overflowed with covid-19 patients, emergency physician Sonya Stokes remains shaken by…
Lujan Grisham, Biden admin announce $10 million in federal funds for tribes, pueblos

Lujan Grisham, Biden admin announce $10 million in federal funds for tribes, pueblos

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Friday $10 million in funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act was awarded to six tribal nations and…
Lujan Grisham talks reproductive healthcare with CNN host

Lujan Grisham talks reproductive healthcare with CNN host

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham warned that banning contraceptives “could be next” when talking to a CNN host about New Mexico’s border and abortion issues.…
UNM approves land acquisition for Las Cruces reproductive health center

UNM approves land acquisition for Las Cruces reproductive health center

Thursday, the University of New Mexico Board of Regents approved a land acquisition for a full-spectrum reproductive healthcare center, that will include abortion care,…
Heinrich questions FDA leadership on baby formula safety, mifepristone

Heinrich questions FDA leadership on baby formula safety, mifepristone

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf answered questions about the safety of human milk formula and mifepristone on Wednesday. Sen. Martin…
Lujan Grisham talks reproductive healthcare with CNN host

Lujan Grisham talks reproductive healthcare with CNN host

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham warned that banning contraceptives “could be next” when talking to a CNN host about New Mexico’s border and abortion issues.…
Study: Marriage equality has had a positive impact

Study: Marriage equality has had a positive impact

A recent study found that in the 20 years since Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to grant same-sex marriage licenses, same-sex…
UNM approves land acquisition for Las Cruces reproductive health center

UNM approves land acquisition for Las Cruces reproductive health center

Thursday, the University of New Mexico Board of Regents approved a land acquisition for a full-spectrum reproductive healthcare center, that will include abortion care,…
Lujan Grisham talks reproductive healthcare with CNN host

Lujan Grisham talks reproductive healthcare with CNN host

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham warned that banning contraceptives “could be next” when talking to a CNN host about New Mexico’s border and abortion issues.…
Senators throw support to embattled Ivey-Soto

Senators throw support to embattled Ivey-Soto

By Justin Horwath, New Mexico In Dept Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto is running for a fourth term despite the state Democratic Party’s decision to censure…
Correa Hemphill to step down from legislature

Correa Hemphill to step down from legislature

State Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, a Democrat from Silver City, won’t seek reelection in the general election in November, leaving SD 28, a swing…
EPA announces $18.9M in funding to address PFAS contamination in New Mexico

EPA announces $18.9M in funding to address PFAS contamination in New Mexico

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded the New Mexico Environment Department nearly $19 million to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water.…
State putting pressure on firms that manage Medicaid to help solve behavioral health access problems

State putting pressure on firms that manage Medicaid to help solve behavioral health access problems

By Gabrielle Porter, The Santa Fe New Mexican New Mexico’s Medicaid middlemen need more skin in the game. That’s the message from Human Services…
Lujan Grisham talks reproductive healthcare with CNN host

Lujan Grisham talks reproductive healthcare with CNN host

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham warned that banning contraceptives “could be next” when talking to a CNN host about New Mexico’s border and abortion issues.…

GET INVOLVED

© 2023 New Mexico Political Report