Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Framework Agreement

Thursday 1-5-12/

NMED officials and NNSA/LANS/LANL managers met this evening in the Cities of Gold Conference Room in PojoaqueNM for a polite and public exchange of views regarding LANL's cleanup of waste from the ongoing US nuclear weapons program. The meeting was held under the auspices of the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board.

Appearing for NMED were Secretary David Martin, Resource Protection Division Head Jim Davis, and Ryan Flynn from the Office of General Counsel. Among the NNSA/LANS/LANL participants were Associate Director for Environmental Programs Michael Graham and Assistant Manager for Environmental Operations George Rael. There were also ~15 NNMCAB members in attendance.

As described by Sec. Martin, NMED has determined that its highest priority for future work will be the protection of New Mexico's ground and surface water, as well as its air. With that in mind, NMED has asked LANS to expedite the removal of TRU waste, now being stored aboveground in tents at LANL's TA-54 (Area-G). Sec. Martin noted the public concern expressed about the possible release of radioactive material by wildfires that might burn over TA-54, engulfing the TRU waste being stored there. He said that, considering the near catastrophic consequences for the environment of last June's Las Conchas wildfire, it is of the utmost importance that TRU waste stored aboveground at Area-G be removed as soon as possible. On the other hand, removal of  TRU waste currently stored below ground at Area G will not be a priority for NMED. [1-11-12: As pointed out by Wren Abbott in this week's SF Reporter, NMED's intent to prioritize the removal of TRU waste stored aboveground at Area-G may be at variance with the 2005 Consent Decree, which mandates the removal of all TRU waste from TA-54 by 2015.] 

Quoting from LANL's magazine National Security Science ("Of great concern to the public and media during the Las Conchas wildfire, the 63-acre site (Area-G at TA-54) is the main waste storage and handling area for Laboratory-generated low-level and transuranic radioactive waste. Currently, Area G stores 10,000 55-gallon drums and other containers of waste above ground, under 10 domes made of fabric stretched on metal ribbing. Another 6,000 drums are buried in underground storage." 

George Rael agreed that the removal of TRU waste from TA-54 should be a high priority. However, he also said that it will be difficult for LANS to pursue this priority while complying with the cleanup timetable set forth in the 2005 Consent Order; i.e., especially since large cuts in the LANL cleanup budget are being anticipated. Therefore, Rael asked that the Consent Order's timetable be renegotiated. NMED managers countered that, although they appreciate the problems being experienced by LANS, they were not yet ready for this renegotiation. They said that perhaps in a year or so, they'd be ready, but not now. Explaining further, NMED's Mr. Flynn said that an agreement now to renegotiate the Consent Order might be seen by Congress as a reason to cut LANL's cleanup budget even farther than was now being planned. Two NNMCAB members objected, saying that this seemed to them to be a poor reason for NMED to delay start of a renegotiation, one adding that her own view should carry special weight since she was a member of an old New Mexico family.

Several LANS speakers pointed out that, with a part of the ARRA funding received by LANL, ~20 new monitoring wells had been constructed. But, NMED’s Davis noted that LANL’s program of  construction of new monitoring wells may be at an end. He added that the collection of large amounts of contaminant data from LANL’s very extensive network of monitoring wells may have reached a point of diminishing returns, and that NMED would, in the future, emphasize efficiency of data collection and interpretation instead of volume. A NNMCAB member opined that there were already too many monitoring wells, and that these wells might themselves provide a route for contaminants to move from surface water down into the aquifer.

Evidently, the views expressed at this meeting were well known beforehand to most of the participants, having been the product of prior talks between NNSA/LANS and a reorganized NMED under the new Gov. Martinez; e.g.., the so-called Framework Agreement ( By contrast, the 2005 Consent Decree was the product of protracted discussions between NNSA and NMED under the then Gov. Richardson. Whereas the Framework Agreement has no legal standing, the Consent Decree continues to have the force of law.