Waste Disposal at Los Alamos Then and Now

In 1943, Allied victory remained far from certain, and the specter of an Axis nuclear weapon loomed. The race to develop the first atomic bombs at Los Alamos involved the manufacture and handling of many hazardous materials. The exigencies of war and paucity of federal regulations, however, rendered the disposition of hazardous materials a lower priority. The original war-era Chemistry and Metallurgy building, for instance, did not have a filtration system, so small quantities of hazardous materials, including plutonium, were released directly into the atmosphere. Untreated radioactive liquids were released directly into nearby canyons, and solid waste was simply buried in the surrounding uninhabited area. Under wartime circumstances, these practices were considered both necessary and acceptable.

After the war, improvements could be made in waste management practices. The facilities constructed toward the end of the war at "DP Site" as a replacement for the original Chemistry and Metallurgy building included simple filtration systems that significantly restricted the release of airborne radionuclides. Radioactive waste treatment facilities were built, and hazardous materials previously dumped into pits were retrieved and buried in much safer containers. As the science of waste management improved, the Laboratory made steady progress in managing hazardous waste materials throughout the early years of the Cold War.

The 1970s witnessed the rise of environmental science and regulation and brought an enhanced Laboratory commitment to new methods for protecting the environment in and around Los Alamos. For example, in addition to building more-sophisticated treatment facilities, the Laboratory could more closely monitor the creation and disposition of harmful materials, identify and correct environmental deficiencies, and provide more-accurate data to the public and decision makers.

Today, the Laboratory remains committed to minimizing its impact on the environment. In addition to constantly improving environmental monitoring and hazardous waste disposition practices, the Laboratory has meticulously restored several waste sites by removing more than 80,000 cubic yards of contaminated materials. The complete remediation of all LANL sites is currently scheduled for completion in 2015.

Handling hazardous waste materials is a top priority, and they are disposed of in the safest and most effective ways available. Indeed, the Laboratory's protocols for handling hazardous waste materials often exceed the requirements of national, state, and local regulations. For example, the new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility, where the Laboratory's analytical chemistry, materials characterization, and metallurgy research and development will be conducted, will meet or exceed all current safety and environmental protection standards. As better science and technology are applied to mitigating the hazardous waste legacy of World War II and the Cold War, the environmental damage of the past is diminished and a more sustainable environment is secured for the future.

–Alan Carr, Laboratory Historian

In this issue...

Contact Us | Careers | Bradbury Science Museum | Emergencies | Inside LANL | Maps | Site Feedback | SSL Portal | Training

Operated by Los Alamos National Security, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's NNSA © Copyright 2016 LANS, LLC All rights reserved | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy