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A coalition of public interest groups that includes Nuclear Watch New Mexico on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against federal agencies over plans to expand the production of plutonium pits – the core of nuclear weapons used to trigger explosions – at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in South Carolina, asks a judge to keep the government agencies from taking any further action toward plutonium pit production until they comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and President Biden’s Jan. 27 executive order requiring that environmental justice be incorporated into the mission of federal agencies.
The lawsuit alleges that DOE and NNSA violated the NEPA by failing to conduct a detailed Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement prior to the decision to more than quadruple plutonium pit production at the two sites.
Leslie Lenhardt, an attorney with the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs, said during a virtual news conference Tuesday that the recent decision to convert the Savannah River Site into a pit production plant represented a “significant change” in the approach to bolstering the nuclear arsenal, increasing environmental concerns over the increase in the amount of radioactive waste and how it is transported.
“DOE and NNSA made the decision to alter the fundamental framework of this production plan without adequately evaluating the impacts on the environment and on the surrounding communities – particularly in New Mexico and in South Carolina – most of whom are unrepresented and under-served. The burden on these communities with producing radioactive waste is too great without the government reviewing this appropriately under NEPA,” she said, later adding, “We have to get this case in front of a judge who can mandate that these agencies conduct the adequate NEPA review process that ensures these environmental issues are considered.”
Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico noted that 68% of people living within a 50-mile radius of LANL identify as people of color.
While pit production has taken place in Los Alamos since the 1990s, the Savannah River Site has never done so and would require the construction of a nearly $20 billion plant – the most expensive building ever built, members of the coalition said.
An NNSA spokesperson said it’s the administration’s policy not to comment on current or pending litigation, but provided a statement:
“Plutonium pit production is necessary to maintain the current nuclear deterrent, which requires NNSA’s science, engineering, technology, and production capabilities to be in place, responsive, and resilient. 80 pits per year is the minimum pit manufacturing capability needed to maintain the current nuclear deterrent long-term. Newly manufactured pits are required to improve warhead safety and security, mitigate risks against plutonium aging, and respond to potential future requirements driven by peer competition.”
Coghlan disagreed, saying that expansion of pit production is unnecessary. He said plutonium pits don’t need replacing because they have a lifespan of more than 100 years and that there are plenty of them already in the current U.S. nuclear stockpile.
He also disputed NNSA’s claim that pit production is being expanded to fortify the nation’s current nuclear arsenal. He pointed out that the NNSA budget for fiscal year 2020 refers to “W87-like pits,” indicating the pits to be produced will be for a different type of warhead than currently in the arsenal.
“That leaves a lot of room for mischief and begs the question of how heavily modified will future pits be,” he said, adding that pits modified from the original design could bring about “a whole host of serious issues.”
Coghlan also questioned how additional radioactive waste will be handled as pit production is accelerated. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad can accept waste from LANL only through 2024, though it has applied for a permit to expand its storage capacity beyond that.
LANL’s safety record hasn’t been stellar, he said, and there is no clear answer as to what would be done with additional radioactive waste produced at LANL.
“We can only conclude that all of these issues and more demand very careful, deliberate programmatic review, which the National Nuclear Security Administration is deliberately and illegally avoiding,” he said.
In February, the state Environment Department sued the U.S. Department of Energy over what it says is a “continuing pattern of delay and noncompliance” with the cleanup of hazardous legacy waste at LANL, posing a health risk to people in surrounding communities.
The lawsuit was filed a day after the NNSA approved a Critical Decision 1 for the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, paving the way for construction of a multi-billion dollar plant capable of producing 50 plutonium pits per year.
In 2018, Congress tasked LANL and Savannah River Site with producing 80 pits per year by 2030 as the United States works to expand its nuclear weapons capabilities.
In addition to DOE and NNSA, DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm and the acting administer of NNSA, Charles Verdon, are named as defendants.
Joining Nuclear Watch New Mexico in the lawsuit are Savannah River Site Watch; its director, Tom Clements; the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, headquartered in South Carolina; and Tri-Valley Communities Against Radioactive Environment, based in Livermore, California.