Saturday, August 20, 2011

Las Conchas Wildfire & LANL Nuclear Waste

The New Mexico Community Foundation (NMCF) sponsored another in its Forum for Environmental Education and Dialogue (FEED) series of meetings on Thursday, Aug 18, 2011, at the Pojoaque Elementary   School Business Office, at 5:30 PM. The topic to be discussed was the aftermath of the recent Las Conchas wildfire, which burned ~250 square miles of forestland in the Jemez Mts. There were approximately 20 members of the general public in attendance at this meeting.

A panel of experts had been commissioned by NMCF to present an overview of the fire's aftermath. The panel consisted of: Manny L'Esperance, LANL manager in charge of fire preparedness and an expert in wildfire control; Mike McNaughton, LANL environmental scientist; Mike McInroy, LANL expert on stormwater runoff and its effects; Bill Bartels, an environmental specialist from NMED; Nita Bates, another environmental specialist from NMED. 

Manny L'Esperance talked about the actual fighting of the Las Conchas fire; e.g., the extensive backburns that had been set in order to try to keep the wildfire from intruding onto LANL property (a success, he said); and the difficulty that had been experienced by firefighters in controlling a wildfire that, at the outset, had been moving at a very rapid pace through the forest (only a partial success.) It was perhaps partly due to the efforts of Mr. L'Esperance and partly due to dumb luck that the wildfire did not burn over TA-54, where 100's, if not 1000's, of 55 gallon drums containing TRU waste are being stored under fabric tents. ( As Joni Arends of CCNS has repeatedly pointed out.)

Mike McNaughton talked about several radioactive substances carried by the ash and smoke generated by the wildfire. He said that the radioactive contaminants of special concern to the public were plutonium-239 (originated from the planet Pluto, he thought), contained in the ash, and polonium-210 (of Polish origin, he had heard), contained in the smoke. He said that these two radionuclides could have been equally perilous to human health, if they had appeared in sufficiently large concentrations. Further, he said that although he believed that the ash, being poorly mobile, could not have constituted a danger to public health, he thought that the smoke might have been a matter for legitimate public concern. Nevertheless, he asserted that any radioactive materials that might have been found in the ash or the smoke were of natural origin, or associated with global fallout, and could not fairly be associated with present or past LANL operations. Even so, I thought he might admit that the building and testing of nuclear weapons, both past LANL operations and the sole purpose for which LANL was created in 1943, have greatly contributed to the last ~50 years of global fallout.

Bill Bartels talked about a small number of air quality monitoring stations that NMED had erected around the burning area, in order to spot-check the extensive air-quality monitoring data that LANL instruments were recording. Bartels said that no discrepancies between NMED and LANL data were discovered in the course of this exercise.

Nita Bates talked about the recent collection of air-quality data all around the state of New Mexico, not just to assess the effects of the Las Conchas wildfire, but also to enquire into the effects of the massive Wallow wildfire, which had burned along the Arizona - New Mexico border. She said that these effects were determined to be minimal; e.g., there was no elevation in ozone levels detected due to the two wildfires. She also asserted that Santa Fe had not experienced any appreciable degradation in its air-quality due to the Las Conchas wildfire.

Dave McInroy said that the occurrence of contamination in stormwater runoff was just beginning to be measured by LANL, and that the first data had just been assembled for stormwaters collected at a location upgradient of LANL operations. He anticipated that contamination in runoff would ultimately be found to be less than what had occurred 10 years earlier, following the Cerro Grande fire; i.e., because of interim improvements in drainage and the slowing down of sediment transport rates.

I brought along a copy of this first tranche of stormwater runoff contamination data to the FEED meeting. (The data had already been placed in the online RACER data-base.) I pointed out at the meeting that this data showed that the concentration of strontium-90 and plutonium-239,240 was occurring at ~50 times the drinking water standard, while americium-241, cesium-137, and uranium-238,234 had been measured  at ~10 times the standard. Mike McNaughton then asserted that the drinking water standard was too stringent a comparison to invoke when attempting to assess the seriousness of the levels of these contaminants in stormwater runoff. He also insisted that these data were indicative of conditions occurring in the natural environment and not connected to LANL operations.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Open Detonation of Explosives Waste at LANL

This week, on 16 Aug. between 5:30 - 7:30 PM, at Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos, LANL held a public meeting to describe their request of NMED for a Permit to detonate explosives waste at TA-36 and TA-39, in the open air.

Similar to last week's meeting regarding a new TRU waste treatment facility, there were ~35 people in attendance at Fuller Lodge; of these, ~25 were from LANL, 1 was from NMED, and ~10 were from the general public. Among the members of the general public were Joanie Arends (Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety), Scott and Susan Kovacs (Nuclear Watch of New Mexico), and myself. The meeting was facilitated by Bruce MacAllister, and there were two LANL presenters: Dave Funk (LANL explosives div. head), and Luciana Vigil-Holterman (ENV-RCRA specialist).

This newest request seeks a Permit from NMED to detonate up to 15,000 lbs of explosives waste in the open air, per year, at each of the two adjacent sites (TA-36 and TA-39). According to D. Funk, this is actually >10 times the weight of explosives waste currently being detonated in the open. He says that LANL is requesting a Permit to detonate so much more than is now necessary, "because future national security interests might require LANL to detonate a whole lot more explosives waste."

According to Mr. Funk, explosives waste is now being generated by LANL primarily from its work on nuclear weapons, both the R&D of nuclear weapons and the recertifying of stockpiled nuclear weapons; other explosives waste is the product of LANL's advanced explosives R&D, as well as its R&D being conducted on improvised explosives. Both Mr. Funk and Ms. Vigil-Holterman adamantly maintain that there is no off-site contamination now being produced by the open detonation of explosives waste at LANL.

Mr. Funk further opined that detonating explosives waste in specially constructive enclosures was much too expensive; i.e., as compared to detonations in the open air. Ms. Vigil-Holterman also pointed out that LANL has been detonating explosives waste in the open air continuously, since the 1950's, but without ever having had a formal Permit.

From the audience, LANL manager D. Hjeresen read a letter written to NMED by Rio Arriba County Commission Chair Felipe Martinez, saying that the RAC Commission was in favor of LANL recieving  a permit for open detonation of explosives waste, since "We believe that detonations in the Laboratory's remote and secure areas are a better alternative to transporting these unstable, explosive wastes on the public roads through our communities. We further believe that a denial of open detonation capability would harm our
country's nation security without an appreciable benefit to the environment." During a later telephone conversation (on 8/22/11), Chairman Martinez told me that a continuation of the economic benefits being brought to the citizens of northern New Mexico, by DOE/LANL, were a matter of special concern to him. 

In the past, it's been difficult for NMED to resist DOE/LANL's demands for additional permissions for hazardous activities not already covered under the Hazardous Waste Facility Permit (RCRA Permit). On 23 December, 2010 NMED outgoing Sec. Curry acceded to a LANL demand for an Open Burn Permit (of explosives residues) for TA-16. The OB Permit had only just been denied by NMED on 30 Nov, 2010, after weeks of public hearings presided over by Judge Joseph Alarid, who then issued his recommendation (evidently negative) to NMED. But, subsequently, NMED was bombarded by letters from local public officials attesting to the many benefits that open burning of explosives residues would have for the national interest; e.g., the mayor of Española who said that an OB Permit was "essential in order to protect our military and our nation's welfare."

Thursday, August 11, 2011

LANL TRU Waste Permit Modification Request

The Los Alamos National Laboratory TRansUranic (TRU) Waste Permit Modification Request Public Meeting was held on 10 Aug., 2011, between 5:30 - 7:30 PM,  at Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos, NM. The intent of this meeting is to discuss a Permit Modification Request (PMR) being made to the New Mexico Environment Dept/ 's Hazardous Waste Bureau, which issued the original Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Hazardous Waste Facility Permit last year.

There were ~35 people in attendance at the PMR meeting; of these, ~25 were from LANL, 1 was from NMED, and ~10 were from the general public. Among the members of the general public were Joanie Arends (Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety), Scott and Susan Kovacs (Nuclear Watch of New Mexico), and myself. The meeting was facilitated by Bruce MacAllister, and there were 3 LANL presenters: Matt Nuckols (civil engineer), Greg Juerling (project manager), and Gian Bacigalupa (RCRA permitting process expert).

The PMR will be for one new LANL hazardous waste facility, in which up to 105,875 gallons of TRU  waste will be characterized and stored, while awaiting shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) site in Carlsbad, NM. The new facility will be located at TA-63. The present RCRA Permit allows for the characterization and storage of up to 4.5 million gallons of TRU waste, now being stored at TA-54.

As planned, the new facility at TA-63 will be adjacent to the plutonium facility at TA-55; this is the source of the majority of the TRU waste being generated now, and will continue to be so into the foreseeable future. Currently, the 2nd largest source of TRU waste is the old CMR building. If the CMRR-NF is eventually built, replacing CMR, it will probably be sited next to TA-55 and is expected to generate as much TRU waste as CMR. The 3rd largest amount of TRU waste now comes from the Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility, which is also expected to continue to operate into the foreseeable future.

Each of the TRU waste generator sites (TA-55, CMR, and RLWTF) will package its own waste into numbered 55 gallon steel drums, the contents of each drum will be recorded and the drums will be sealed. The sealed drums will be transferred to TA-63 where their contents will be "characterized", and the drums stored while awaiting shipment to WIPP.

Characterization of the contents of each drum will consist of: radiography of the sealed drum, in order to ensure the absence of certain prohibited items (no liquids are being accepted at WIPP); measurement of the intensity of radiation (primarily neutrons and gammas) emanating from the sealed drum, in order to ensure that the dose rate, at the container wall, is less than 200 mrem/hr (which is the maximum allowed dose rate for so-called contact-handled TRU waste); and anaysis of the gases emanating from the HEPA filter terminating the vent attached to each sealed container, in order to ensure the absence of certain radioactive, poisonousness and/or corrosive gases.

The new facility will store TRU waste containers in 6 buildings, designed with fire suppresant systems, located at TA-63. This will be an improvement over the current situation at TA-54, where containers are stored on concrete pads covered by fabric domes. These domes are vulnerable to fire. It was only due to aggressive fire-fighting and to much good luck that these domes didn't burn during the recent Las Conchas wildfire (which.burned more than 244 square miles over 36 days in the mountains surrounding Los Alamos.) Ten years ago, the Cerro Grande wildfire also very seriously threatened LANL buildings.

During the PMR Meeting, it was stated by LANL staff that if any of the proposed TA-63 buildings were to burn in an uncontrolled manner, due to accident or wildfire, then TRU waste containers being held in storage could rupture, due to rapid expansion of the trapped gases inside the containers. A worst case scenario of this sort had been modeled, and it was thought that no more than ~5 rem would be absorbed by workers during such a catastrophic event. The annual dose allowed by the DOE for an employee working around radioactive materials is ~1 rem/year. Even so, a person or persons who absorbed a dose of ~1 rem within a period of minutes or hours would probably not experience any symptoms of radiation sickness. But, whether a maximum dose of 5 rem  is realistic is another question. After all, the new facility will be permitted for 105,875 gallons (~425 m**3) of TRU waste which, if one accepts the DOE's estimate of the average activity of contact handled TRU waste as being 47 Ci/m**3, implies a total activity of ~19,900 Ci (mostly isotopes of Pu.) If this material should all be released into the facility's buildings, then this would be more than enough to compromise the health of anyone unfortunate enough to be present, even briefly, in those areas.

As was pointed out by Joanie Arends, DOE plans to close the WIPP site in ~2030. After that, and absent any new plans for waste disposition, TRU waste generated at LANL will stay at LANL.

DOE anticipates that by ~2030 WIPP will contain a total of ~9 million Curies (Ci) of TRU waste. This waste must "remain isolated from the biosphere" for a time much greater than 24 thousand years; i.e., the half-life of Pu239, the radionuclide making up ~10% of TRU waste, and the one with the longest half-life. By contrast, most of the TRU waste has a half-life of less than 100 years.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Future of Nuclear Power Plants Uncertain

        As reported today by BBC World News:

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has repeated a pledge to reduce reliance on nuclear power, as people mark the 66th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.
Thousands gathered at the city's peace memorial to observe one minute's silence in memory of the 140,000 killed by the US atomic attack in 1945.
Mr Kan used the occasion to address the crisis caused by a tsunami wrecking the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in March.
He promised to challenge "conventional beliefs" that nuclear energy was safe.
The Fukushima plant continues to leak radioactive material, nearly five months after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered the tsunami which caused the damage.
It was causing serious concerns not just in Japan but across the world, Mr Kan said.
"We will deeply reflect over the conventional belief that nuclear energy is safe, thoroughly look into the cause of the accident and - to secure safety - implement fundamental measures," he said.
About 30% of Japan's electricity was nuclear generated before the Fukushima crisis, and the country had previously targeted raising that figure to 53% by 2030.
But Mr Kan said: "I will reduce Japan's reliance on nuclear power, aiming at creating a society that will not rely on atomic power generation."
The prime minister spoke after laying a wreath of yellow flowers at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where doves were released as a symbol of peace.
Japan has long vowed never to make or possess nuclear weapons but had embraced nuclear power as it rebuilt after World War II.
However, referring to Fukushima, Hiroshima mayor Kazumi Matsui told those gathered: "The continuing radiation scare has made many people live in fear and undermined people's confidence in nuclear power.
"The Japanese government must quickly review the energy policy... to regain people's understanding and trust," added Mr Matsui, the son of an atomic bomb survivor.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Nuclear Power Plants, Sí! Nuclear Weapons, No!

Yes, it seems to me to be altogether reasonable for a person to be against the continuation of American R&D on nuclear weapons, while encouraging the drive toward the eventual world-wide abolition of these absurdly horrific weapons, and simultaneously to be for the continued push to build and operate more nuclear power plants in America.

Last night (Aug. 2, 2011), on C-SPAN, I watched the Senate hearing on nuclear power plant safety, chaired by Sen. Boxer (Environment and Public Works Committee.) Four NRC commissioners were seated as witnesses, as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman, Dr. Jaszco.

The following is the text of a note that I sent today to Sen. Boxer:

Senator Boxer, in the context of your review of concerns that were expressed recently by members of the general public regarding the disaster at Fukishima Daiichi, and its possible implications for nuclear power plant safety in the USA, I agree with the pertinence of the observation made last night by your colleague Sen. Alexander that "each year in the USA there are 38,000 auto-related deaths on the highways" (as well as 100,000's of serious injuries).

It is, therefore, astonishing to me that members of the general public, who would no more consider giving up driving their beloved cars (cars which, over a 50 year period of use could, demonstrably, lead to their death with probability ~0.01, and/or to their serious injury with probability ~0.1) than they would consider giving up eating tasty but unhealthy foods (foods which, when consumed over the course of a lifetime, could lead to serious health problems, and even early death, at predictable average rates); they, nevertheless will excitedly agitate over the possible dire consequences of radiation releases from nuclear power plants, power plants which, in their ~50 yearlong history of use, have never been shown to be the cause of a single human death in the USA. 

Senator Boxer, it seems to me that you could be more of a leader than a follower on this issue, and could stop catering to the, in my view, irrational fears expressed by some members of the general public. You may be aware of the fact that, when the incandescent light bulb was first introduced into wide use, ~100 years ago, there were many urgent expressions of fear by members of the general public concerning the possible ill effects of the "unnatural glow" emitted by, what was then, a very unfamiliar light source.

Interestingly, nowadays, libertarian elements in our society complain bitterly about an incipient ban by the federal government on the sale of the now very familiar incandescent light bulb; i.e., to be banned by the feds because it is so inefficient, in terms of energy use, and because there are much better alternatives available in the form of plasma lamps and solid state illuminators. Evidently, while familiarity breeds contempt (or love, in the case of libertarians), unfamiliarity can breed suspicion and even fear.

Whatever! Or, as some say in California, New Mexico,and other places of diverse culture: "Cada loco por su tema."