In a year that exceeded expectations, a substantial amount of Los Alamos National Lab's radiological and hazardous waste from years past was permanently disposed of at off-site facilities — a move in step with the Lab's goal to mitigate hazards to workers, the community and the environment while sustaining the national security mission. What's more, the Lab’s off-site shipments of waste outpaced the rate of waste generation even as its mission to develop plutonium pits expanded.
In fiscal year 2023, the Lab generated 817 containers of transuranic (TRU) radioactive waste — such as protective clothing, tools and equipment contaminated from nuclear weapons research and production.
The Lab disposed of more containers than those generated, including TRU waste from previous years, for a total of 885 containers shipped off-site. The containers left the Lab in 68 shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, the nation’s underground repository for defense-generated nuclear waste.
Removing old waste drums has been crucial for employees conducting work in the Plutonium Facility in TA-55 — on both the mission to produce at least 30 pits per year and nondefense plutonium missions, such as heat sources for NASA programs.
“Staff across TA-55, as well as packaging and transportation drivers, have been instrumental in the progress we’ve made shipping large amounts of waste off-site,” said Nestor Trujillo, group leader for Hazardous Material Shipping.
Several other waste streams leave Los Alamos
The Lab also sent 629 shipments of waste from other waste streams—more than 5,700 containers—to licensed off-site disposal facilities in FY23. This was done at a rate that far outpaced the approximately 2,000 containers of waste generated. These waste streams included:
- Hazardous waste, including paint thinners, industrial solvents and chemicals regularly used in laboratories.
- Low-level radioactive waste, which has less than 100 nanocuries per gram and consists of radioactively contaminated liquid, soil or debris from demolition, as well as protective clothing, tools and equipment with low levels of radioactivity.
- Mixed low-level radioactive waste, which contains a combination of low-level radioactive and hazardous wastes.
- New Mexico special waste, which is nonhazardous, but still requires specific disposal requirements and might include petroleum-contaminated soil or asbestos.
“We continue to ship more waste than is generated, which reduces the amount of waste on-site and lessens any associated hazards to the environment, community and workforce,” said Pat Kennedy, group leader for Waste Management Services.
Beating the clock
Not only did the past year see a significant amount of waste sent off site, but it was done in record time. According to Kennedy, there are “regulatory timelines for how long we can keep each type of waste on site,” as well as internal goals for those waste streams. “In fiscal year 2023, we exceeded all our goals,” he said.
“I can't stress enough how good of a year we had,” Kennedy added. “Waste is moving off site much faster than it used to be, which is great. The program and team mature annually, and we're constantly looking for process improvements.”
Top-notch safety record
Foremost among the Lab's FY23 waste management accomplishments was its stellar safety record. The Lab received zero notices of violation from any of the 15 waste disposal facilities it uses or the Department of Transportation.
“This shows that people are really paying attention to what they're doing,” Kennedy said.
“I'm truly excited and proud to have the opportunity to lead the Waste Management division, implementing process improvements and increasing efficiency to deliver operational excellence,” said Ronnie Garcia, head of the division.