SANTA FE – A federal agency announced Monday that it will prepare a full-blown environmental impact statement on production of plutonium “pits” at a South Carolina site but will perform only a lesser review, for now, of ramping up pit-making to 30 units a year at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The National Nuclear Security Administration will conduct a “supplement analysis” at LANL, following on a 2008 environmental impact statement there, and provide “site-specific documentation” for proposed authorization of expanded production of pits — the cores of nuclear weapons — at the Los Alamos lab.
Depending on the results, NNSA may announce an amended “record of decision” for the prior environmental impact statement at LANL or could prepare more National Environmental Policy Act documentation for pit-making there.
NNSA said in Monday’s statement that LANL, based on prior reviews, is at this point authorized to make no more than 20 pits annually.
NNSA, which oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons labs, is under a mandate from Congress and the military to make 80 plutonium pits a year by 2030 as part of plans to modernize the nations’ nuclear weapons arsenal.
The U.S. made many pits during the Cold War but only a handful have been produced in recent decades, all at Los Alamos. Critics point to studies that say thousands of old pits in use or storage now can last for many decades.
A plan costing up to $28 billion for start-up adopted by NNSA calls for 50 pits a year to be made at South Carolina’s Savannah River Site, by repurposing a facility there, and at least 30 a year at LANL. No pits have been made since LANL completed a set of 29 in 2011, and the most ever made in a year at Los Alamos was 11.
Activists have been pushing for more environmental study before LANL, with a history safety issues, resumes making pits. NNSA Monday announcement said it will conduct a supplement analysis for pit-making across the entire national weapons complex as well a similar review at Los Alamos and the full environmental impact statement at Savannah River.
Greg Mello of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group said he’s glad NNSA noted the 20-pits-a-year existing limit at LANL but said the promised supplement analysis amounts to no more than “a ‘memo to file’ as to whether New Mexico deserves a fresh look at the effects of expanded pit production,” without any promise of taking public comment. He said the 2008 EIS at Los Alamos was based on now-outdated assumptions, like plans for a big new building for plutonium work that were cancelled.
A statement released by Nuclear Watch New Mexico and two other public interest groups said it was a significant victory that NNSA agreed to an EIS for Savannah River and that safety issues at Los Alamos must be resolved.
A recent independent studied commissioned by Congress cast serious doubt on any NNSA plan to get to 80 pits a year over the next decade, saying the agency may not even be able to begin operations by 2030, much less achieve full-rate production.