Key Lab Used for WWII Atomic Bomb Development Still 14 Years From Clean Up, Maybe More

While officials at one of the nation's top nuclear weapons laboratories promise to focus on cleaning up Cold War-era contamination, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates it could be 2036 before the cleanup is complete at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory.

During a meeting Thursday night, federal officials acknowledged reviewing whether new risks will increase the need for additional funding for the cleanup project.

Michael Mikolanis, head of the DOE's Office of Environmental Management at Los Alamos, confirmed that a recent review presented new information increasing the liabilities for cleanup beyond what officials had previously thought.

"Certainly can't say yes or tell you no that the date is being changed, but obviously with increased scope…either we would need additional funding to do that or stretch out the dates," Mikolanis said. "We are currently evaluating that. We have made no decision."

New Mexico environmental officials and watchdog groups worry that the federal government has significantly understated its environmental liability regarding the lab, which played a critical role in developing the atomic bomb during World War II.

A 2021 independent audit found the DOE liable for more than a half-trillion dollars in environmental cleanup, including an understated liability at Los Alamos of more than $880 million.

Chris Catechis, director of the New Mexico Environment Department's resource protection division, said that despite the pending litigation, the state wants to continue working with federal officials on addressing plumes of chromium contamination and the removal of tons of contaminated soil.

"We agree that we don't feel the cleanup is moving as quickly as we'd like to see it, but with that said, we don't want to walk away from the process," Catechis said.

Furthermore, several elected officials have raised concerns regarding the federal government's plan to increase plutonium core production at Los Alamos and how that will result in additional waste and disposal liabilities.

Los Alamos National Laboratory
A cleanup project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is expected to take at least 14 more years. Above, an automatic camera on a nearby island recorded this phase of the atomic bomb explosion on "Baker Day" on July 25, 1946, at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The picture shows the giant column of water, gas and smoke at about its highest peak. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The DOE is facing a legal challenge by the state of New Mexico over setting and meeting the milestones of its current cleanup agreement with the state, which was signed in 2016. State officials found the federal government's plan for the previous fiscal year to be deficient.

Watchdog groups said it wasn't until the state sued in February 2021 that the DOE proposed boosting the cleanup budget at the lab by about one-third. Before that, budgets were flat, with the groups arguing that DOE had no incentive to seek more funding.

"The conclusion I draw from it is the New Mexico Environment Department gets a lot more from the stick than it does from the carrot with respect to making the laboratory and DOE truly committed to comprehensive cleanup," said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

Officials indicated during the meeting that the National Nuclear Security Administration has funding for a site-wide environmental review of operations. While they declined to provide more details, advocates have argued for years that the environmental consequences and cost-effectiveness of operations at the lab deserve more scrutiny.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.