After more than two years of negotiation and contentious wrangling, the U.S. Energy Dept. and the state of New Mexico have agreed on an estimated $800-million "fence to fence" cleanup of yet another Cold War atomic weapon production icon–the 38-sq-mile Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, center of nuclear weapons production since World War II, will get $800-million cleanup under a consent order with the state. (Photo courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory)

Lab officials say it will take a decade to complete the project under a consent order signed March 1 by DOE, the state Environment Dept. and the University of California, which operates the site for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). DOE will fund cleanup.

The order calls for a comprehensive investigation and cleanup of all site contamination, except for nuclear waste. "After years of tough negotiation, this legal order puts New Mexicans in control of [lab] cleanup and gives us the power to make sure this important work is completed,’’ says state environment Secretary Ron Curry. Industry sources say he battled with DOE officials over cleanup details. "There was intraagency fighting at high levels," says one.

The order contains a level of specificity not often found in such agreements, officials say. It focuses heavily on site investigation. "No one really knows what contamination is where,’’ says Jon Goldstein, state environment spokesman, who adds that wastes mostly include industrial pollutants and mixed hazardous-nuclear wastes.

There are nearly 2,100 contaminated areas at the site, some of which already have remediation plans. Los Alamos and DOE already have a plan for characterizing and remediating nuclear waste under a separate pact not under state authority. The new cleanup agreement includes stiff fines if the lab misses deadlines.

Since the atomic bomb manufacturing site opened in 1943, solid, hazardous and radioactive wastes were disposed of in septic systems, surface impoundments, landfills and other areas throughout the site. Some buildings must also be decontaminated and decommissioned. A regional aquifer is contaminated and there is ongoing groundwater monitoring.

Baton Rouge-based Shaw Environment and Infrastructure, Boise-based Washington Group International and a Los Alamos small business have current contracts with the university to remediate portions of the site. "Shaw expects to be doing work under the order through our [existing] contract,’’ says Steven Brown, its vice president for DOE programs. The agency plans to rebid cleanup work separately next year from the existing lab operations contract.