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NNSA: No need for new environmental study at LANL

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The National Nuclear Security Administration has determined it does not need to conduct a site-wide environmental impact statement at Los Alamos National Laboratory before increasing the production of plutonium pits, the triggering device used in nuclear warheads.

The NNSA found that it already has sufficient information, outraging opponents of nuclear proliferation, who claim the agency is attempting to ramrod plans to expand the production of nuclear weapons through while keeping the public in the dark.

In 2018, Congress enacted a policy that required LANL to produce a minimum of 30 pits a year to help the NNSA meet a goal of 80 pits per year by 2030 as the United States works to increase its nuclear capacity under the Trump administration.

The other pits are being produced at a repurposed fuel fabrication facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Plutonium pits at one time were manufactured at the Rocky Flats Plant, in Colorado, which was shut down in the 1990s amid an environmental scandal.

On Tuesday, the NNSA released a final supplement analysis of a 2008 site-wide environmental impact statement, or SWEIS, for LANL, concluding that more analysis “is not required” under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“NNSA has both programmatic and site-specific environmental impact statements covering pit production activities designed to provide NNSA the flexibility to adapt decisions as needed in response to national security requirements,” it says, adding that the 2008 Transformation Supplemental Programatic EIS contemplated producing 80 pits per year at LANL alone.

In addition, the report says that earlier this year the NNSA published a supplemental analysis of the 2008 review and determined that increasing pit production at the programmatic level “does not constitute a substantial change from actions analyzed previously and there were no significant new circumstances or information relevant to environmental concerns.”

Lab officials have previously described plans to add $5 billion of building plans over the next five years, and $13 billion over the next decade, driven largely by ramping up production of plutonium cores for nuclear weapons. About $3 billion of that would be spent on improvements to existing plutonium facilities for the pit work.

The lab also expects to add 1,200 jobs by 2026 as production increases.

Concerned citizens and watchdog groups have been clamoring for a new SWEIS, saying that the plan to increase pit production substantially changes the landscape. They say the analysis doesn’t consider other impacts of increasing production, such as the stress created on infrastructure, roads and the housing market.

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group said in a news release that the NNSA report was essentially telling people, “Nothing to see here, folks – move right along.”

He said what the NNSA released Monday wasn’t a supplemental EIS at all.

“The notion that comprehensive environmental analysis is not needed for this gigantic program is a staggering insult to New Mexicans and an affront to any notion of environmental law and science,” he said in the release. “NNSA has abridged the content of this review by narrowing it to pit production only. LANL’s planned expansion includes the new pit mission, but also goes far beyond it. By narrowing the scope of comparison with the 2008 SWEIS, NNSA is hiding the total magnitude of what is planned.”

Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said the NNSA was “slamming the door on public accountability” as it expands plutonium pit production.

“It’s shameful that NNSA is relying upon outdated studies from 2008 to justify pit production when, since that time, it has wasted billions of taxpayers’ dollars and we’ve experienced another catastrophic wildfire, the discovery of serious deep groundwater contamination and nuclear safety problems that LANL can’t seem to fix,” Coghlan said in a statement after being contacted by the Journal. “It’s past time that our congressional delegation steps in and protects New Mexicans by demanding that NNSA conduct current studies with the opportunity for public comment as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.”

New Mexico’s congressional delegation was unsuccessful in its efforts to extend the deadline for public comment on the matter.

U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, all New Mexico Democrats, released a join statement on Wednesday:

“The NEPA process is important to ensuring worker, community and environmental safety, it should be carried out as the law intends, and NNSA and LANL should undertake a robust public engagement process to explain their environmental analysis. Northern New Mexico has had to deal with decades of environmental cleanup from past activities and the burden is fully on DOE to justify its decisions to the public to ensure confidence—and take the public input they have received seriously. We will continue to fight for strong independent oversight of DOE nuclear facilities, and we are glad to have included language in last year’s national defense bill to strengthen the oversight authority of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.  We are also working to reverse DOE’s proposed budget cuts for environmental cleanup at LANL and seeking additional infrastructure support for our state.”

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