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.