To understand why a raging wildfire near the Los Alamos National Laboratory is a big deal, you must understand how wastes were disposed.
AP writes today:
Los Alamos Canyon runs past runs past the old Manhattan Project site in town and a 1940s era dump site where workers are near the end of a clean-up project of low-level radioactive waste. The World War II Manhattan Project developed the first atomic bomb, and workers from the era dumped hazardous and radioactive waste in trenches along six acres atop the mesa where the town sits.
“The threat is pretty limited,” said Kevin Smith, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration site manager for Los Alamos, which over sees the lab. “Most of the materials have been dug up.”
But a report produced by the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability found:
Approximately 18 million cubic feet of radioactive and chemical solid wastes onsite were disposed of since 1943. “All of the radioactive waste and most of the chemical waste have been buried on the mesas of Pajarito Plateau where LANL is located. Radioactive liquid wastes were discharged to the canyons, initially with little treatment.”
For many years, one method of disposal was “kick-and-roll”. The back of a truck was brought to the edge of a hole and barrels of waste were kicked. Wherever the barrels rolled tow as their final resting place.
No protection was put in place to ensure contaminants did not spread from the barrel. It is not clear that today’s practices are more protective.
An estimated 899,000 curies of low-level transuranic [i.e. radioactive elements heavier than uranium, such as plutonium] wastes were buried at Los Alamos. It is difficult to estimate exactly the quantity of radionuclides buried onsite due to the inaccurate record keeping and alterations in the definitions of low-elevel waste in the intervening years. Disposal continues today in unlined pits and shafts, a practice declared illegal by the New Mexico Attorney General’s office in 2011…
Tons of plutonium were processed at LANL in the early years of development and again in the 1980s. After the Savannah River Site, LANL contains the second largest volume of plutonium-238 in the US nuclear weapons complex: this type of plutonium has a 90-year half-life, a very high activity and is extremely hazardous…