January 30, 2009 Contact: Marissa
For Immediate Release (505) 827-0314
or (505) 231-0475
Environment Department Confirms
High Levels of Radionuclides in LANL Storm Water and Suspended Sediment
Elements Observed Do Not Pose Immediate
Health Threat but do Indicate Importance of Clean Up
(Santa Fe, N.M.) -- The New Mexico
Environment Department has confirmed that sediment and storm water within a Los Alamos National
Laboratory watershed last year during a flooding event contained plutonium238,
plutonium 239/240, americium241 and strontium90 at elevated levels.
Department investigators measured elevated radionuclides resulting
from one large potable water spill as well as several storm events
that occurred in Los Alamos/Pueblo Canyon during July and August.
A water line break last summer on
July 5 at Los Alamos National Laboratory Technical Area 21 (TA-21) triggered automated storm
water sampling equipment maintained by NMED in Los Alamos Canyon.
Approximately 4 million gallons of potable water released over a 26 hour period
eroded soil and carried contaminants into Los Alamos Canyon and beyond
laboratory boundaries. Staff from NMED's Department of Energy
Oversight Bureau collected five samples of water during the event and
radiological analysis of those samples showed high levels of plutonium in
the suspended sediment. Concentrations of plutonium239/240 (Pu239/240) ranged
from 89 to 160 picocuries per gram (pCi/g) and averaged 114 pCi/g.
These levels are 100 times the levels detected during normal storm events
from 2005 to 2007. The flows from the water line break did not reach the Rio
"Our study again shows that
LANL must focus greater efforts on measures to protect the environment, the watershed and the drinking
water supplies of Northern New Mexico. This will mean measures to prevent
the movement of contaminants into the canyon and downstream as required
in the clean up order. We also support the installation of an early
warning system to detect the flow of contaminants into the Buckman Diversion," said
NMED Secretary Ron Curry. "The department's scientists will continue
to monitor the environment to ensure the health of New Mexico residents
These high levels indicate that
flooding resulting from the water line break mobilized contaminants in soils at and below TA-21.
Facilities at TA-21 were historically used by LANL to process plutonium and
are known sites of contamination. This site is the location of old drain
lines from a building that was part of the "DP West" plutonium
processing facility at TA-21. In addition to radionuclides, chemical contaminants such
as heavy metals and organic compounds are present at the site. NMED has
ordered additional work at several sites at TA-21 - including the one inundated
by the water line break. All are being addressed in the fence-to-fence
clean-up order signed in 2005 by DOE, LANL and NMED.
The department also collected a
water sample on July 26 from the Rio Grande
at Buckman Landing - the location of the Buckman Direct
Diversion - following a rainstorm in northern New Mexico. The department
collected that sample to reflect what might happen in the future during
normal storm water flows in the Rio Grande. Plutonium was not detected
in that sample although americium was found at levels that might reflect contributions
from atmospheric fallout.
Plutonium-239 is a manmade radioactive
element produced since the 1940s as a result of nuclear weapons research. It has a radioactive
half-life of 24,000 years and is particularly harmful to lung tissue
and internal organs if inhaled.
The department continues to work
with LANL, the City of Santa Fe, Buckman Direct Diversion Board and staff, and local communities
to investigate and implement efforts to reduce the flow of contaminants
washed with storm water from LANL property. In addition, the department is
working with agencies to increase surface water monitoring efforts along the
NMED is reviewing LANL's most recent
proposal for arresting contaminated sediment flows within the Los Alamos/Pueblo Canyon
system, and expects to issue a decision within the next 30 days. "I
expect DOE and the Laboratory to move quickly to execute the work we order," added
An earlier report
(http://www.nmenv.state.nm.us/OOTS/documents/PRBuckmanReport9-26-08revbyDE.p df ) concluded that contaminant levels from legacy
waste are low where construction will occur in the channel at the Buckman
Direct Diversion site.
Note: a Curie is a unit of radioactivity.
A picocurie is one trillionth of a Curie.
For more information, call Marissa
Stone at (505) 827-0314.