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Los Alamos National Laboratory Making Progress In Its Groundwater Protection Program, But Further Enhancements Needed


LOS ALAMOS, N.M. -- Despite progress in efforts to protect groundwater in the surrounding region, the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) needs to address substantial technical challenges in understanding and quantifying its inventories of hazardous wastes and how contaminants from them can migrate to groundwater beneath the 40-square-mile site, says a new report from the National Research Council.

“Our committee believes that it is technically feasible to monitor groundwater at the site,” said Larry W. Lake, W.A. Moncrief Centennial Endowed Chair in Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, University of Texas, Austin, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “However, determining the efficacy of the monitoring system will depend on careful and continual analyses of the data it generates.” As at other sites in the nation’s nuclear weapons complex, LANL’s operations created a legacy of radioactive waste and environmental contamination now being addressed by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The committee emphasized that the groundwater protection program, initiated nine years ago by New Mexico state law, is a work in progress. State law says the laboratory must evaluate and, if necessary, remediate contamination at LANL by 2015.

The laboratory’s interim plan for monitoring groundwater generally followed good scientific research practice, the committee said. But steps should be taken to enhance the program’s overall effectiveness and build a solid scientific foundation for long-term efforts to track, contain, or remove groundwater contaminants that resulted from Cold War nuclear-weapons work at the site.

Successful completion of the groundwater protection program will not be easy, the report says. There is considerable uncertainty about the amounts of waste in areas from which contamination might emerge, as well as the pathways along which the hazardous materials may travel.

Ensuring the protection of groundwater is especially important in Northern New Mexico because of the region’s limited water supplies. Seven of 12 drinking water supply wells in Los Alamos County are located on the LANL site. The San Ildefonso Pueblo also lies in the general path of groundwater and the few streams that flow from LANL to the Rio Grande. In 1995 New Mexico’s Environment Department said the site’s monitoring of groundwater was inadequate, and the laboratory’s protection program was started in 1998. The Environment Department then issued a legally binding consent order in 2005, setting timelines and requirements for LANL’s program.

Since the 1940s, LANL has disposed of its radioactive and other hazardous wastes on-site. Liquid effluents have been discharged into canyons, for example, while solid wastes have been buried, mainly on mesa tops. Discharge of liquid wastes, which LANL considers the source of chromium and other contaminants recently detected in groundwater, is controlled or has been practically eliminated, the report says. Solid wastes and contaminants, which the laboratory considers to have less potential to impact groundwater in the near future, have received much less attention. However, solid waste in some of the 25 material disposal areas, and plutonium and other contaminants that LANL has deemed immobile, could someday affect groundwater.

LANL should complete its investigation of historical information about these disposal areas, focusing on radionuclides and other chemicals that could affect human health and the environment, the report says. Field analyses should be conducted when historical information offers too few details to determine the quantities of contaminants or how much they have migrated.

LANL has made good progress toward understanding groundwater behavior beneath the site, but its work in geochemistry has not kept pace with developments in the science, the report says. More work in geochemistry will be central to understanding how contaminants move with the groundwater and how well monitoring samples represent groundwater as a whole. Geochemistry also can shed light on the pathways groundwater and contaminants travel through.

By and large, however, LANL scientists still lack detailed knowledge that is needed to predict flow paths beneath the surface, the report says. Plus, there is a lack of understanding of pathways between watersheds. LANL should add a sitewide perspective to its future groundwater monitoring plans. The laboratory also should drill more wells in and between canyons to increase the area of the regional aquifer to be monitored.

Data quality issues should be addressed, too. DOE’s site office at LANL should ensure that laboratory administrators and site regulators agree on how to compile and report data from groundwater monitoring samples. Moreover, the laboratory should do a better job of describing to both scientific and public audiences uncertainties about contamination sources, pathways, and how reliably contaminants can be detected at very low levels. Greater openness among both LANL officials and the area’s stakeholders about such uncertainties could improve the quality and transparency of the program, the report says.

Scientific peer review of LANL’s work could also help address concerns about how drilling and other activities related to the installation of monitoring wells could alter the natural conditions around sampling points, and to support monitoring efforts in the future. LANL should conduct geochemical research on contaminant interactions, as well as other studies that would support plans for monitoring specific areas of the site, the report says. Peer review of this work could help substantiate findings by LANL scientists and foster greater public confidence in LANL’s ability to protect the site’s groundwater.

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. A committee roster follows.

Pre-publication copies of Plans and Practices for Groundwater Protection at the Los Alamos National Laboratory are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


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