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Radioactive waste near New Mexico water supply not a health risk, officials say

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Radioactive waste is seeping from mountain burial sites in the canyons of northern New Mexico and moving toward the area's springs and streams, but officials insist it's not a health risk.

Radioactive waste is seeping from mountain burial sites in the canyons of northern New Mexico and moving toward the area's springs and streams, but officials insist it's not a health risk.

The area is home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a major tech lab central to research on outer space, renewable energy, medicine, nanotechnology, and supercomputing. But it's also one of two places where the U.S. conducts nuclear weapons testing, and was one of several sites used by the Manhattan Project to develop the first nuclear weapons, including the bombs responsible for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan during the second World War.

The nuclear waste from the production of those weapons was buried deep within mountains in the area. But the L.A. Times reports that the mountains haven't contained the waste, some of which has trickled down to the Rio Grande, a vital water resource for the Southwest.

Unsafe concentrations of organic compounds -- such as perchlorate, used to make rocket propellent, and radioactive byproducts of nuclear fission -- have been found in runoff in canyons that drain into the river, according to the report.

But contamination levels of the Rio Grande have not yet been high enough to raise health concerns, and lab officials say the waste doesn't jeopardize people's health because storm water that stirs up contaminated sediment is trapped in canyon bottoms (where it can be hauled away) or too diluted to pose as a health risk.

But the worry is that the surface contamination will move into groundwater, where it could affect drinking-water wells and the Rio Grande.

Here's a frightening quote from the story:

"When you see a child's footprints and Tonka toys in canyons where there is plutonium, there is reason to believe that a lot more work needs to be done to make the environment safe," said Ron Curry, secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department.

In 2002, the department issued a cleanup order for the sites, but lab officials resisted the order for years before agreeing to a revised plan to clean about 2,000 contaminated sites by 2015.

Since then, roughly monitoring wells and gauges have been installed, contaminated soil is being removed from canyon bottoms and wetlands and small dams have been built to stop the flow of polluted storm water The most hazardous of the radioactive waste has been placed in sealed containers for storage in a federal underground storage facility in Carlsbad, N.M.

But that all concerns surface water, and doesn't address the water moving through the rock beneath the surface. And it's unclear just how much there is -- worsened by a CDC report that the lab under-reported the area's exposure to radioactive elements.

More evidence has been found. The L.A. Times report notes that unsafe levels of DEHP, an organic compound used in plastics and explosives, were found in an aquifer and high concenetrations of plutonium were found after an area water main stirred up sediment.

A $200-million water capture project in Santa Fe intends to treat contaminated water, but it won't go online for another two years.

The concern in the meantime: that stirring up radioactive sediment for removal will pose an immediate health risk for area residents, many of whom use the canyons for recreational activities.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure