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Pit-making plans draw threat of lawsuit

SANTA FE – Lawyers for three advocacy groups, including one in New Mexico, are threatening to sue if federal agencies don’t undertake creation of a nationwide environmental impact statement of plans to ramp up production of the plutonium cores of nuclear weapons known as “pits.”

Los Alamos National Laboratory, along with the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina, have been tasked with manufacturing 80 pits a year by 2030 to help modernize the nation’s weapons arsenal.

Lawyers for Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Savannah River Site Watch and Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment in Livermore, Calif., where there is another nuclear weapons lab, this week raised the possibility of litigation in a letter to DOE Secretary Rick Perry and the head of the semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nation’s weapons labs.

Citing the National Environmental Policy Act, the letter calls for “timely compliance” with NEPA as “the best means for the agencies to keep these (pit production) projects on track, as a failure to rigorously comply with NEPA may necessitate litigation, including if necessary motions for injunctive relief, all of which would likely increase the expense of DOE’s and NNSA’s proposed actions and extend their timelines further.”

“If the agencies continue on their current trajectory, we will have no choice but to evaluate all our options to enforce compliance with federal environmental laws,” the letter says.

The U.S. made thousands of 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.

In June, NNSA announced that it will prepare a full-blown environmental impact statement on pit-making at Savannah River but will perform only a lesser review, for now, on the plans to make 30 units a year at Los Alamos.

NNSA said it 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. NNSA says LANL currently is authorized to make no more than 20 pits annually.

Jay Coghlan, Nuclear Watch New Mexico Director, said in a news release, “The Los Alamos lab has a long track record of nuclear safety problems that must be resolved before expanded plutonium pit production is even considered” and that the government’s claimed need for expanded production “needs to be critically examined.”

In a statement provided Wednesday, an NNSA spokesman said: “NNSA is well aware of its NEPA responsibilities and takes them very seriously. The comments in this letter will be considered as the agency proceeds.”

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