Court Hears Arguments on Los Alamos Plutonium Lab

Written by on May 2, 2011 in Materials Industry News - No comments
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Activist organizations in court arguments on Wednesday urged a federal judge to suspend work on a new plutonium facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Reuters reported (see GSN, April 19).

The Los Alamos Study Group is seeking a preliminary injunction that would prevent additional financing for the Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility before the site’s environmental impact and alternate project options are more thoroughly evaluated (Zelie Pollon, Reuters, April 27).

The government hopes to pursue an altered design for the facility, according to a preliminary environmental impact assessment submitted last week by the National Nuclear Security Administration. The facility is one of two components in the broader Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement effort; the other half of the complex is already complete, the Associated Press reported (Sue Major Holmes, Associated Press/Santa Fe New Mexican, April 27).

“The real question is whether Los Alamos and the country need this facility at all,” said Greg Mello, who heads the watchdog organization. “Between now and 2023, this facility will generate nothing but cost to national security, to the environment and to the taxpayer, no matter what design they choose. So the point is: Why build it?”

The planned site would assume duties now carried out at an aging Los Alamos facility used in checking the military viability of plutonium caches and in other oversight tasks, Los Alamos National Laboratory spokesman Kevin Roark said. The complex would provide services for another facility involved in producing plutonium, monitoring the U.S. nuclear arsenal and other activities with atomic components, he added.

The replacement facility is needed for supporting nonproliferation and atomic security initiatives, U.S. officials contended. It “is an important part of our effort to invest in the future, build a 21st-century nuclear security enterprise, implement the president’s nuclear security agenda, and improve the way the (National Nuclear Security Administration) does business,” said NNSA spokesman Josh McConaha.

Nuclear Watch New Mexico head Jay Coughlin, though, said the site’s vulnerability to earthquakes is a “very serious concern.” A 2007 Los Alamos laboratory report warned that “a large earthquake that might occur in north-central New Mexico every 2,500 years could cause significant damage to some parts of the facility.”

The laboratory will not scrimp on safety, managers say.

“Everyone at Los Alamos is committed to the safety of our work force, our facilities, and the community we call home,” said Bob McQuinn, Los Alamos associate director for nuclear and high hazard operations. “While the latest calculations revealed some new areas to improve, we will quickly incorporate those into our ongoing facility improvement activities.”

Expense-reduction measures planned for the site would undermine critical protective activities, the Los Alamos Study Group contended (see GSN, Feb. 11). Seismic activity might enable hazardous plutonium-tainted vapor to escape from the facility and poison the surrounding soil if if the site lacks sufficient protections, Reuters said.

“It would be like a dirty bomb,” Mello added, referring to the deliberate dispersal of radiological material using explosives (Pollon, Reuters).

Coughlin said the NNSA preliminary environment assessment does not explore “credible alternatives” to the current plan, AP reported.

Nuclear agency spokeswoman Toni Chiri, though, said the report refers to the NNSA investigation of such options. The assessment weighs the updated site design against plans included in the facility’s original impact assessment from 2003, as well as the possibility of continuing operations in the 60-year-old Los Alamos structure (Holmes, Associated Press).

The court in Santa Fe is expected to hear further arguments on Monday, Reuters reported (Pollon, Reuters).

The Obama administration is likely to decide this fall on moving ahead with the facility, Chiri said (Holmes, Associated Press).


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