SANTA FE – Activist groups in three states including New Mexico are demanding an environmental review before the federal government ramps up production of the plutonium cores of nuclear weapons called “pits.”
The groups’ letter to the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration – the semi-autonomous wing of the Department of Energy that runs the nation’s weapons labs – says NNSA “has made no visible effort to begin the legally required National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process” for expanding pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
NNSA earlier this year revealed plans to make up to 80 pits a year, as mandated by Congress, by dividing the job between LANL and Savannah River, as part of a massive modernization plan for the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
Pits already can be made at Los Alamos. A recent court decision cleared the way for repurposing part of the Savannah River Site for pit production over objections from South Carolina elected officials who wanted to retain a more lucrative but long-troubled nuclear fuel fabrication mission.
Nuclear Watch New Mexico, SRS Watch in South Carolina and Tri-Valley CAREs Livermore, Calif. – home of another weapons lab – say an environmental impact statement is required before pit production is increased above a currently sanctioned 20 per year cap.
The U.S. hasn’t made any new pits since 2011, when LANL completed the last of 29 plutonium cores for Navy submarine missiles. The most ever made at Los Alamos in a year is 11. Under NNSA’s plan, at least 30 pits a year would be made at LANL and 50 at Savannah River by about 2030.
An NNSA spokeswoman, asked to respond to activist groups’ assertions, said via email this week, “The pit production mission will be carried out in accordance with all applicable environmental and regulatory requirements.”
The three groups also say that before it finishes a NEPA process, NNSA can’t take actions that would limit alternatives before “irreversible” resources are dedicated to a project.
Los Alamos is already making plans, including adding work shifts, for increased work in its plutonium facility.
Critics of increased pit production say there is no need to make more because thousands that will remain in good shape for decades remain in storage after industrial-scale production during the Cold War.