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U.S. lawmakers from NM hold out on review of nuke plan

The mission of producing plutonium pits has been based at Los Alamos National Laboratory for years, but no pits have been made since 2011. The lab has been dogged by safety lapses and concerns about lack of accountability. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation find themselves in an awkward position as watchdogs claim the U.S. government is skirting key environmental laws by refusing to closely examine the consequences of increasing production of key plutonium components for the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

As supporters of bringing more defense-related spending to New Mexico, the Democratic lawmakers have been reticent to speak about whether there should be a more in-depth review of the plutonium core project, despite their recent criticism of the Trump administration’s plans to roll back environmental oversight of other federal projects.

Federal officials have set a deadline of 2030 for increased core production, with work being split between Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. At stake are jobs and billions of dollars to revamp existing buildings or construct new factories.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nuclear arsenal, said last week that it doesn’t need to do any broad environmental reviews of the proposal. Watchdog groups say that’s a violation of law; some are calling for a nationwide review, and others want a more in-depth analysis of the impact on the Los Alamos lab.

The offices of U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich told The Associated Press they would not be able to say whether they would support an expanded review without first being briefed by the U.S. Energy Department. A meeting is planned for this week.

The senators said they support Los Alamos’ mission and believe the review process under the National Environmental Policy Act is important to ensuring worker, community and environmental safety.

“The burden is on DOE and Los Alamos to explain their NEPA analysis and decisions to the public, and we will continue to prioritize worker safety and independent oversight of the lab,” the senators said.

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a Democratic Senate candidate whose district includes the lab, declined to comment. His office said he was gathering more information.

The mission of producing the cores has been based at Los Alamos for years, but no cores have been made since 2011, because the lab has been dogged by safety lapses and concerns about a lack of accountability.

The consequences of building up production capabilities at Los Alamos are immense, and a thorough review should be done, said Greg Mello of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group.

He said the government isn’t going to “become conscious of the contradictions and interactions” of the numerous programs that would be involved unless it’s forced to prepare an environmental impact statement.

“Here at Los Alamos, the pit production is the catalyst and main component of a huge expansion that now threatens to set up a satellite campus in Santa Fe. There’s talk of a satellite campus in Española and bridges over the Rio Grande, and they’re struggling with housing and transportation,” he said. “There’s $13 billion in construction proposed, and no one knows how it all fits together.”

The state’s congressional delegation and other elected leaders have been fighting for years to consolidate plutonium core production at Los Alamos, given the lucrative nature of the work. Even Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was among the supporters while she was in Congress.

Her office said Friday that in general, it would want the most up-to-date information.

“That would certainly seem to be in New Mexicans’ best interest when we’re talking about everything involved in pit production,” Governor’s Office spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said.

He said the state Environment Department is doing what it can to make sure New Mexico will be protected.

Stelnicki said that the state agency has talked with the Department of Energy broadly about the plutonium project but that officials with the Environment Department did not provide details about any regulatory concerns related to ramping up production or the added waste that will be generated by manufacturing more plutonium cores.

Watchdogs said the state needs to consider that the waste will need to be sent somewhere.

New Mexico already is home to the federal government’s only underground nuclear waste repository, but questions have been raised about its capacity.

It will be up to Lujan Grisham’s administration this year to consider a permit renewal for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, near Carlsbad. The energy Department’s draft application calls for extending the time that waste can be placed there from 2024 to 2052. However, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s documentation regarding plutonium core production suggests that the repository be open long enough to take the tens of thousands of metric tons of waste generated from the project over 50 years.

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