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NNSA wants more plutonium in Los Alamos facility

SANTA FE – The federal government has put out for public comment plans for a 10-fold increase in the amount of “at risk” radioactive material that can be handled for plutonium work in one of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s buildings.

The National Nuclear Security Administration released a “draft environmental assessment” for operational changes at the Radiological Laboratory/Utility/Office Building, known as RLUOB or the Rad Lab.

The building’s allowable radioactive “material-at-risk” inventory would go from the current 38.6 grams of “plutonium equivalent material” to 400 grams. The change would recategorize the facility from a “radiological facility” to a “hazard category 3 nuclear facility.”

The release of the document drew immediate fire from watchdogs and critics of the lab. Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico said recategorizing RLUOB was approved by former Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in 2015 and more than $2 million has been spent since then. Coghlan said conducting an environmental assessment “after the fact” may violate federal law that requires public comment before commitment of “irretrievable resources.”

Coghlan added, “This environmental assessment to raise the plutonium limit in the Rad Lab should not be a standalone document, but instead be part of a far broader programmatic environmental impact statement on expanded plutonium pit production.”

NNSA is under orders from Congress to ramp up production of plutonium “pits” – the cores of nuclear weapons – to 30 annually over the next several years, at Los Alamos, and to 80 pits a year by about 2030, part of a huge modernization of the country’s nuclear arsenal. The production of 80 pits per year might be moved to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. No new pits have been made since 2011.

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study group noted the $1.4 billion RLOUB is only part of the plans for expensive new plutonium facilities at Los Alamos, which also include underground “modules” for the riskiest work. “NNSA is segmenting its analysis and rigging its comparisons to make its plans seem much smaller and more benign than they are,” he said.

Critics like Coghlan and Mello say no new pits are needed with thousands produced in the past still around and the Navy’s distaste for a new kind of warhead for which new pits have been proposed.