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Suit Targets Planned Plutonium Lab

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
          Federal officials need to consider alternatives to building a multibillion dollar plutonium laboratory in Los Alamos, as costs have increased more than sixfold over the last decade, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court.
        The project, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility, is still in the design phase, with completion not expected for a decade. Projected costs have increased since 2004, while the need for the nuclear weapons work to be done in the lab has changed with changes in U.S. nuclear weapons policy, according to the suit by the Los Alamos Study Group.
        A study of alternatives to the project published in 2003 as required by the National Environmental Policy Act is inadequate given the changes that have happened in the years since, the Albuquerque-based nuclear weapons program critics allege in their lawsuit.
        The suit calls the 2003 Environmental Impact Statement "obsolete and inadequate."
        National Nuclear Security Administration officials declined comment on the suit, but issued a statement saying there is currently a review under way to determine if a new Environmental Impact Statement will be required.
        Greg Mello, the study group's director, called the current review being conducted by the National Nuclear Security Administration too little, too late.
        "The time for an internal analysis of whether to do a new environmental impact statement passed a couple of years ago," Mello said in an interview Monday.
        In the past, similar lawsuits have delayed nuclear projects, including a major nuclear weapons X-ray machine built at Los Alamos in the mid-1990s.
        The new plutonium laboratory would replace the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building, where Los Alamos workers have studied samples of dangerously radioactive plutonium and other materials since it opened in 1952.
        Independent federal safety auditors have concluded that the old building is a danger to workers and the public, but more than two decades of effort to upgrade or replace it have so far failed because of shifting government priorities.
        The project's latest incarnation, the subject of Mello's suit, dates to 1999, when federal officials abandoned plans to upgrade the existing Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building and began considering construction of a replacement.
        In 2003, the federal government published a lengthy environmental impact statement on the project. Such studies are required by the National Environmental Policy Act, a 1969 law that requires federal agencies to formally review alternatives to their proposed projects, along with the environmental impacts of the proposed action and its alternatives, including the option of doing nothing.
        Based on that study, the National Nuclear Security Administration approved proceeding with the project in 2004, estimating its cost at $600 million.
        Since that time, the project has had to be redesigned because of new concerns about earthquake risks.
        That redesign is still under way, and officials say they do not yet know its final costs. But an estimate published earlier this year put the current cost at more than $4 billion.
        In the lawsuit and an interview, Mello argued that the situation today, because of the redesign and higher costs, is substantially different than it was in 2003, prompting the need for a new environmental analysis.
        The lawsuit also argues that one of the building's original purposes, assisting in the manufacture of new plutonium cores for nuclear weapons, is no longer being contemplated.
        The suit notes a 2006 study by a group of federal science advisers that concluded the plutonium cores in the current arsenal should last in excess of 100 years.
        Without that requirement, less expensive and environmentally damaging options are available, which were not considered in the 2003 environmental impact statement, according to the suit.

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