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. Its parent agency asserts that super computers and accelerators used in critically important research – not making plutonium “pits” for bombs – is the driving force for an expanded supply of electricity in New Mexico’s Atomic City.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) 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 that lab officials say will reach the capacity limits of its existing transmission system by 2030.
But power lines sometimes 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, unlike that proposal, the new line the lab now wants 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 New Mexico outdoors that is home to bears, cougars, elk, mule deer and big horn sheep, even the occasional wild horse. It has hiking trails and is full of cultural sites. “You can’t go 100 yards on this place without some sort of Indigenous or Hispano artifact,” said Garrett VeneKlasen, northern conservation director for N.M. Wild, a group seeking to turn the Caja into a protected cultural heritage site with stricter oversight.
But 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.
The 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.
It should be noted, though, that often-rough dirt forest roads without accompanying power lines can be a relatively minimal human intrusion on natural areas. And 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 NNSA, LANL’s parent agency, couldn’t say how many new towers would go up, but that they would be two-pole structures 80 feet high, with the poles 14 feet apart, similar to PNM’s existing towers, although stronger steel structures would be needed for extension over the Rio Grande.
The NNSA also addressed the question of whether LANL – whose climate change work includes predictions that northern New Mexico will lose much of its forests by mid-century and research on making windows into solar power receptors – 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.
Review of the power line proposal is actually in a preliminary stage. 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. Could it be done at a comparable cost?
The NNSA 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 a bit more effort and information before the NNSA can make a persuasive case that it needs and can responsibly build what would be another set of power lines across the Caja del Rio plateau.