Los Alamos Unsafe for Public Use, New Study Finds

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At least one nuclear laboratory managed by the UC system will never again be fit for public use, a recent Department of Energy-commissioned study found.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory, the site of the nation's formative nuclear weapons testing program, may never rid itself of radioactive contamination, the National Research Council reported Monday.

The lab joins more than 100 nuclear weapons test sites across the country whose cleanup may be in jeopardy because, as the report states, the government's current plan is unreliable and lacks permanent funding.

Although the UC-managed Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories are also named in the report, officials at those labs drew a distinction between those sites and Los Alamos.

Representatives said that, unlike Los Alamos, they have never tested nuclear weapons.

But, of the 144 sites listed in the report, 109 of them will never be clean enough for unrestricted use. Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley labs are not heavily polluted but cannot be released for public use any time soon, the study states.

The study also found that Congress has not been willing to appropriate funds for environmental cleanup.

Both Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore earned federal recognition of extreme environmental damage with their listing as "superfund" sites. With this designation, they receive reliable government money to fund their cleanup programs.

Lawrence Berkeley officials, however, said the lab has far more difficulty securing federal funding because it has not received "superfund" status.

"If there was enough money, we could clean it up tomorrow," said Lawrence Berkeley spokesperson Ron Kobe. "But it simply costs a lot to do pristine cleanup work."

He said the lab's environmental damage includes small amounts of tritium, or radioactive hydrogen, in its groundwater and eight buried tanks of fuel. Kobe said the non-nuclear laboratory has not experienced anything near the level of problems as those at Los Alamos.

"We believe we don't have a long- term cleanup problem," he said. "Our waste doesn't present a constant danger to the public."

But L.A. Wood, a local environmental activist, ridiculed the labs' cleanup efforts and said contamination poses a threat to the surrounding community.

"They've never had a commitment to clean up the labs - especially not the Berkeley labs," he said. "They say it's not cost-effective, even though Berkeley's lab is in an urban area."

Wood said the federal government shrunk away from its 1980s commitment to environmental cleanup and that lab officials have often not been willing to investigate.

"It's their history," Wood said. "It's science by the seat of your pants. They're moving so fast there's no time to do any kind of environmental assessment."

Bert Heffner, Lawrence Livermore's manager of environmental and community relations, said the lab faces serious environmental issues but that the land will not be permanently uninhabitable.

The lab's groundwater, however, is not expected to be completely cleaned until 2072, Heffner said. The lab is also working to pin down several other spots of chemicals dumped on lab property, he said.

Lab officials clean contaminated water by pumping it through charcoal filters, which absorb the contaminants and allow clean water to flow back into the ground.


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