Environmental Protection

Group Wants DOE to Prepare EIS for Proposed Plutonium Facility

The Los Alamos Study Group recently filed a complaint against the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) in federal District Court in Albuquerque, N.M., to halt further investment in a massive underground plutonium facility proposed at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

The primary purpose of the facility is to increase production capacity for new plutonium warhead cores (pits).

Thomas Hnasko of the Hinkle, Hensley, Shanor and Martin law firm is representing the Los Alamos Study Group, Since 1989, the group has provided leadership on nuclear disarmament and related issues in New Mexico..

The group alleges that DOE and NNSA violated the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) by preparing to construct a greatly-expanded “Nuclear Facility" as part of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) project without an applicable Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

On July 1, the Study Group sent a letter to DOE and NNSA officials notifying them of their intent to pursue a court-ordered injunction if NNSA persisted in working on the facility without a new EIS. NNSA wrote an EIS for an earlier version of the facility in 2003. At that time the facility was to cost one-tenth as much, use one-fiftieth as much concrete, take one-fourth the time to build, and entail far fewer environmental impacts. NNSA replied July 30 to the group, admitting “changes” to the proposed facility and said the agency was internally reviewing the issue.

“The time for cozy internal review has past,” said Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group director. “In a nutshell, NNSA changed the project to which it had committed without telling anyone, and without environmental analysis of alternatives either to the project, to its design, or to its construction methods. This is illegal, so NNSA has to stop," he said.

Many of the project’s difficulties can be traced to just a few major causes. Changes in DOE’s “Design Basis Threat” helped drive the proposed facility underground – into a thick stratum of loose volcanic ash that cannot support it, the group said. The magnitude and frequency of earthquakes expected at the site has increased dramatically, requiring much heavier construction. Congress, acting through the independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, asked NNSA to include industry-standard safety features which NNSA had not originally intended to include. Meanwhile NNSA has struggled to maintain what it calls a “hotel concept” for the facility, so its programs and missions can be changed at any time, which has proven challenging from the design perspective under these seismic conditions.

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