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Regulator nixes NEPA reviews for plutonium production

January, 20, 2020

By Bev Banks, reporter at E&E News

The National Nuclear Security Administration has decided that future plans for expanded nuclear weapons production do not need a programmatic environmental impact statement.

NNSA, a semiautonomous agency within the Department of Energy overseeing the national nuclear weapons stockpile, announced Jan. 8 via the Federal Register that "no further NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] documentation at a programmatic level is required" for expanded production of plutonium pits, the radioactive cores of nuclear weapons that play a critical role in detonation.

In an email to E&E News, Greg Wolf, the deputy director for the agency's public affairs office, said NNSA provided the public a chance to review its draft supplemental analysis released in June, and a "comprehensive programmatic review of production of plutonium" was conducted in 2008.

"After review of all comments, NNSA decided that all of the environmental consequences of production of 80 pits per year, at a programmatic level, had already been thoroughly evaluated, taking into account the passage of time and all other relevant factors," Wolf stated.

The Department of Defense 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called for accelerated production of plutonium pits and no fewer than 80 pits per year by 2030.

NNSA designated the Los Alamos National Laboratory for production of no fewer than 30 pits per year. In South Carolina, NNSA plans to repurpose the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site for the manufacture of at least 50 pits per year.

Wolf said NNSA will provide an opportunity for public participation "on whether to do another environmental impact statement (EIS) dealing with environmental impacts at Los Alamos and will provide opportunities for public input into its review of environmental impacts at Savannah River."

Sharon Squassoni, a research professor at George Washington University and former senior specialist in weapons of mass destruction for the Congressional Research Service, said NNSA may have eliminated the programmatic impact statement to streamline the process to meet production goals.

"Whenever you're dealing with a DOE facility, nothing happens quickly," Squassoni said. "So having to go through the environmental impact review would likely add years to this process, and my guess is that they feel like they don't have that time."

Wolf challenged this characterization and said NNSA's inclusion of public participation in future and past environmental impact analyses "is hardly a 'streamlined' process."

Squassoni noted that this type of decision is not surprising given President Trump's rollbacks of environmental regulations and his recent overhaul of NEPA (Energywire, Jan. 6).

"We've seen this before with the Trump administration in terms of ignoring the rules and moving forward," Squassoni said.

Watchdog groups consider lawsuit

In September, nuclear watchdog groups threatened legal action against NNSA if a programmatic environmental review was not conducted (Greenwire, Sept. 20, 2019).

"My group will look at the prospects of litigation very seriously," said Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment (CAREs), a grassroots organization that monitors nuclear activities at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Opponents of NNSA's decision said the agency is denying the public a chance to comment and thwarting NEPA without justification for aggressive plutonium pit production.

"Most fundamentally, NNSA is making a serious mistake," Kelley said. "They're flouting both the environmental law itself, NEPA, and the 1998 court order that Tri-Valley CAREs was a party to."

Kelley explained that NNSA's expansion of plutonium pits is tied to the creation of a new nuclear warhead, W87-1, at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

"Why are they proposing this now?" Kelley said. "The answer is the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is presently developing a new nuclear weapon that will have a plutonium pit design that is novel, meaning that it doesn't exist in the stockpile."

Nuclear Watch New Mexico Executive Director Jay Coghlan said NNSA's actions are both costly and perfunctory. The group follows nuclear facilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory and advocates for greater government transparency of nuclear weapons programs.

"They're steamrolling this whole thing," Coghlan said. "NNSA has yet to offer a concrete justification or rationale for why expanded pit production is needed."

The Congressional Budget Office estimated a cost of $5.7 billion from 2020 to 2024 for the annual production of at least 80 pits. This is an additional $5 billion over CBO's original $9 billion estimate for 2019 through 2028.

By Bev Banks,

Rreporter at E&E News

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