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Feds say nuclear weapons work will be open

A review of a proposal to ramp up production of key components for the United States’ nuclear arsenal will be open and transparent, according to members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation.

Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Rep. Ben Ray Luján said in a joint statement to The Associated Press that they received assurances from federal officials that the review process also will include an opportunity for public comment.

The Democrats were briefed last week by federal officials after the National Nuclear Security Administration announced it did not need to do a more expansive nationwide review of the impacts of building plutonium cores at federal installations in New Mexico and South Carolina.

As supporters of bringing more defense-related spending to New Mexico, the lawmakers initially refrained from commenting on whether they would support an expanded review, saying they needed more information. Watchdog groups have argued that federal officials are violating national environmental laws by not doing a more in-depth analysis.

The lawmakers said as the U.S. Energy Department, Los Alamos National Laboratory and its contractors move forward with plutonium core production, they have a responsibility to take precautions to protect employees, the community and the environment.

“Furthermore, we expect that the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board will continue to conduct thorough oversight of lab plans and operations and their recommendations will be taken seriously by DOE and Los Alamos leadership,” the lawmakers said in the statement.

Watchdogs say the federal government already has tried to limit the oversight of the safety board and that a site-specific review at Los Alamos lab would fall short of what’s needed to understand the affects of such a major undertaking. They also point to the lab’s history of safety and security lapses.

Greg Mello of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group said he’s disappointed the delegation “wants to remain (in) the dark about the environmental impacts” of what he likened to a new Rocky Flats-type plutonium warhead factory in northern New Mexico. With a long history of leaks, fires and environmental violations, the Rocky Flats facility in Colorado underwent a $7 billion cleanup that was finished in 2005.

“They want as much dirty warhead manufacturing as possible for Los Alamos, and they don’t want anybody to know or discuss the predictable problems and impacts on our communities and environment,” Mello said.

Watchdogs also have concerns about the waste that would be generated by plutonium core production, saying it could take up valuable space at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico, where the federal government sends tons of Cold War-era waste from decades of bomb-making and nuclear research as part of a multibillion-dollar cleanup effort.

“Our politicos should explicitly support nationwide public review of expanded plutonium pit production instead of condoning NNSA’s stove-piped approach that is designed to suppress citizen opposition,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

A draft supplemental analysis of the work planned for Los Alamos is expected to be released in the coming months. However, a few of the concerned groups are considering legal action to force a broader analysis.

Federal officials have set a deadline of 2030 for increased core production, with work being split between Los Alamos lab 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 mission of producing the plutonium cores has been based at Los Alamos for years but none have been made since 2011 as the lab has been dogged by a string of safety problems and concerns about a lack of accountability.

Officials for years have pushed for production to resume, saying the U.S. needs to ensure the stability and reliance of its nuclear arsenal. The National Nuclear Security Administration has said most of the cores in the stockpile were produced in the 1970s and 1980s.

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