Radioactive waste is trickling toward New Mexico’s Rio Grande River from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, serving as a grim reminder of the site’s Cold War history, and potentially threatening northern New Mexico’s drinking water.
As reported by the Los Angeles Times Sunday, the contaminated material is seeping through the canyons that surround the laboratory’s 40-acre site. Remnants of the laboratory’s toxic waste, generated over its 66-year history as a bomb factory and national defense lab, is heading for the Rio Grande and the aquifers that supply water as many as 250,000 residents of northern New Mexico.
Los Alamos National Laboratory officials contend that there is no health risk because the sediment is diluted and trapped in the canyons, where it can be collected and hauled away. But state officials are not so sure.
In 2002, the New Mexico Environment Department issued a cleanup order to the laboratory following the discovery that “past or present storage, treatment or disposal of hazardous and solid waste at the facility may result in an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment.”
Laboratory officials disagreed with the state’s findings, but eventually agreed to clean up some 2,000 sites. That work is scheduled to be completed by 2015. The plan deals with surface contamination, rather than groundwater. And the state’s environment department recently reported finding a compound that’s used in plastics and explosives in an aquifer supplying drinking water to Los Alamos and nearby White Rock.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory was formed in 1943 with the express purpose of designing and building an atomic bomb. Its work on that project and other national defense programs in the years since have generated large amounts of radioactive waste, much of which was buried on site.