By Mindy Bridges
Earlier this month, state legislators, tribal leadership and staff, state agency officials and representatives from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) met in New Mexico to discuss the ongoing cleanup and long-term stewardship of the federal government’s cold war nuclear weapons production and research sites.
More than 80 members from NCSL’s Nuclear Legislative Working Group, the State and Tribal Government Working Group and the National Governors Association’s Federal Facilities Task Force participated in the meeting, which included special tours of the Santa Clara Pueblo and Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The meeting began with a unique opportunity—a “behind the ropes” tour of the Santa Clara Puye Cliff Dwellings, where the ancestral home of the Santa Clara people for more than 1,000 years. Governor J. Michael Chavarria, the Santa Clara tribal council and tribal staff graciously hosted the meeting participants, opening up areas of the cliff dwellings that are not normally accessible to the public.
The next day, attendees had the opportunity to tour the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the first atomic bombs were developed during World War II and where radioactive waste cleanup and innovative nuclear research continues today. The tour included a visit to the historic sites where the “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” bombs that exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, were developed. In addition to the history, the tour also featured the environmental remediation and cleanup work being completed at the site.
After setting the stage and providing background through the site visits and tours, the groups dug into the hot topics that affect their policy decisions and work back home. A focus of the meeting was to learn more about the recently shuttered Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only underground radioactive waste disposal facility.
Following a truck fire and subsequent, though apparently unrelated, release of radiation from the facility in February, the site has temporarily closed and stopped accepting radioactive waste shipments from other states. The groups were able to meet with and question the DOE officials who are responsible for investigating the accidents and re-opening the site. Joint sessions also covered DOE’s current budget and policy priorities and natural disaster preparedness at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and other federal nuclear facilities throughout the country.
In other sessions, NCSL’s Nuclear Legislative Working Group met to discuss nuclear materials research and development activities at Los Alamos National Laboratory, oversight of used fuel from nuclear power plants, DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy activities, and the future of nuclear energy.
The State and Tribal Government Working Group discussed long-term stewardship and the natural resource damages assessment process across the DOE complex with leadership and key staff from the four area pueblos—Jemez Pueblo, Pueblo de San Ildefonso, Pueblo of Cochiti and Santa Clara Pueblo—including the close relationship between LANL and Pueblo de San Ildefonso, one of the few tribal nations to share a boundary with a federal facility as well as the impacts and loss of cultural services for each of the four pueblos.
The recent events at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant are a reminder of the importance of building understanding among states, tribes and the federal government. These relationships will help ensure the success of the environmental cleanup and long-term stewardship of the DOE nuclear complex.
Mindy Bridges is a research analyst in NCSL's Environment, Energy and Transportation Program.