It takes power to run a national laboratory, especially one tasked with a new mission of manufacturing dozens of nuclear weapons cores per year.
Now, Los Alamos National Laboratory says it needs more power. The National Nuclear Security Administration has proposed a 12.5-kilovolt power transmission line across the rough-hewn Caja del Rio plateau west and south of Santa Fe, to meet power needs lab officials say will reach the capacity limits of its existing transmission system by 2030.
But power lines can be a hard sell. Two years ago, a Texas company that wanted to run a high-voltage line through the Pojoaque area downhill from Los Alamos was chased off by opposition led in part by – a well-spoken LANL scientist.
But the new line the lab wants now wouldn’t go through a residential zone, at least not until it crosses over a Rio Grande canyon and reaches Los Alamos County.
The Caja del Rio is a prized section of northern N.M. outdoors home to bears, cougars, elk, mule deer and big horn sheep, even an occasional wild horse. It has hiking trails and is full of cultural sites. N.M. Wild hopes to turn it into a protected cultural heritage site with stricter oversight.
Yet the Caja del Rio is no pristine wilderness. There’s a power substation on its eastern flank that has a bay and capacity for another power line. Existing transmission lines serving Los Alamos cross the Caja and other Santa Fe National Forest land to the north. There are forest roads twisting across the land and sites where wooden pallets have been hauled in to fuel bonfires for drinking parties. Still, it remains a pretty wild place to wander through.
NNSA itself says protecting the Caja del Rio “is of paramount importance” and it will keep impact on the landscape to “an absolute minimum” by using the path of the existing power line that crosses part of the Caja as much as possible and following a forest service road for another section.
Some important details have been left out of public information about the project, which requires U.S. Forest Service approval. In response to recent questions from the Journal, the National Nuclear Security Administration, LANL’s parent agency, couldn’t say how many new towers would go up but would be two-pole structures 80 feet high with the poles 14 feet apart, similar to PNM’s existing towers, though steel structures would be needed over the Rio Grande.
The NNSA also addressed the question of whether LANL – whose climate change work includes predictions northern New Mexico will lose much of its forests by mid-century – could build its own sustainable power plant instead of adding another link to PNM’s system that will cost up to $300 million. A renewables plant would require a “large-scale installation” and most of the lab site has “security, environmental or other restrictions,” the agency said.
More detail is expected in a “draft environmental assessment” due by the end of the year. It will include a complete archeological survey of all potential routes and a “viewshed analysis” to identify where the proposed transmission line would be visible and analyze effects on scenery.
The agency also ought to provide more explanation for why it rejected the option to “re-conductor” the two existing power lines to expand their electrical current capacity. Some reasons given so far are easy to understand – a new line more easily ensures power availability during construction, from continued use of the existing lines. Other arguments seem counterintuitive. NNSA maintains a new power line would limit impact on undisturbed areas and avoid known cultural and biological resources better than expanding the capacity of existing lines. Huh?
NNSA makes no mention of pit production and says the additional power will accommodate “state-of-the-art science experiments, innovation and training in accelerator and neutron science, medical isotope production and research, and next-generation computing that could conduct larger simulations, perform more complex calculations, and produce results with greater fidelity.”
All of that is what LANL was meant to do. But it will take more effort and information before NNSA can make a persuasive case it needs and can responsibly build what would be another set of power lines across the Caja del Rio plateau.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.