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Delegation should support strong review of pit production

Production of plutonium pits, the triggers for nuclear weapons, is expected to resume at LANL, with a goal of making as many as 80 pits a year by 2030. (Courtesy of LANL)

“Awkward” was how a recent article by the Associated Press appropriately described the position of New Mexico’s liberal congressional delegation when it comes to environmental review of plans to ramp up production of plutonium “pits” at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Our Democratic elected officials in Congress are all, to varying degrees, considered strong supporters of environmental causes. On LANL, which produces radioactive waste and will produce much more when it starts making the grapefruit-sized cores of nuclear weapons on a grand scale over the next decade, they’ve walked something of a tightrope.

They want the billions of dollars in spending and the jobs that come with making pits for a historic (and historically expensive) upgrade of the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal. They’ve even fought the idea of LANL having to share pit production with another national lab in South Carolina. They want all of the pits to be made in New Mexico.

But they’ve also been supporters of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent, congressionally created agency that provides a modicum of oversight of the national labs. The DNFSB over the past couple of years has been under attack as the U.S. Department of Energy tries to hinder its access to information and facilities.

New Mexico’s senators and representatives also always make sure there is roughly $200 million a year in the federal budget for cleanup of legacy waste at the lab, although some say that’s not nearly enough.

Now, as the AP’s Susan Montoya Bryan reported last month, “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.”

At issue is whether DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration should conduct broad, in-depth environmental reviews of the pit-making plan. Watchdog groups say these reviews are required by law.

As of last month, the offices of U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich couldn’t say whether the senators would support an expanded environmental review of pit production, pending a DOE briefing.

“The burden is on DOE and Los Alamos to explain their NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) 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 running to replace the retiring Udall in the Senate and whose district includes LANL, declined to comment as his office gathered more information.

The NNSA has said it completed a detailed review covering pit production activities in 2008 and a second programmatic review is not necessary.

But there are major issues to consider here. No pits have been made since 2011, in part because the lab has been dogged by safety lapses. While the pit production schedule demanded by Congress and the Department of Defense calls for LANL to gear up to making at least 30 pits annually, the most ever made at Los Alamos in a year is 11. LANL is currently authorized to make only up to 20 annually.

Lab critic Greg Mello has noted that the NNSA’s 2008 study was based on now-outdated assumptions, such as plans for a big new building for plutonium work that were cancelled.

Any discussion of pit-making must include taking note of the country’s Cold War-era pit factory at Rocky Flats in Colorado, which was shut down in the 1990s amid an environmental scandal.

Yes, New Mexico reaps $3 billion in estimated economic benefit from LANL every year and that amount will grow as pit production kicks into gear.

But an exhaustive environmental review of pit manufacturing doesn’t seem like too much to ask for, even in a poor state desperate for economic development. The feds are still trying to clean up the radioactive and hazardous waste left over from New Mexico’s contributions so far to the creation and maintenance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Doing the best job possible to ensure making pits is environmentally safe should be goal of everyone involved, including our delegation in Washington.