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LANL pit production: Agency says lab doesn't require thorough environmental review

January, 10, 2020
Santa Fe New Mexican

By Scott Wyland

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s plans to forge ahead with producing plutonium cores for weapons without first conducting a comprehensive environmental review is drawing fire from watchdogs who say the agency is violating a 1998 court ruling.

No “programmatic environmental impact statement” on the possible effects of making 30 of the so-called plutonium pits per year at Los Alamos National Laboratory and 50 at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina is required because previous studies are sufficient, the agency announced Wednesday in the Federal Register.

In a December report, the nuclear agency said it will conduct site-specific reviews at the Los Alamos lab and Savannah River Site but doesn’t need to do a systemwide study on the effects of ramping up pit production.

“There are few differences in the potential environmental impacts on a programmatic basis associated with producing pits at two smaller capacity sites compared to producing the same number of pits at a single site,” said the December report, which was a supplement to a 2008 analysis of the pit program. “The primary difference is that smaller impacts would occur at two sites versus larger impacts at a single site.”

But critics contend the decision runs counter to a 1998 court order that requires a full environmental analysis when two or more sites are involved in pit production or when the National Nuclear Security Administration plans to manufacture more than 80 pits yearly. “The decision is flawed and incorrect and flouts the court order,” said Marylia Kelley, director of Tri-Valley CAREs, a nuclear watchdog group based in Livermore, Calif.

The Trump administration in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called for producing at least 80 pits a year by 2030, with a capacity to create more of the cores. The agency is pushing for the lab to have capacity to produce 30 pits a year by 2026.

The agency not only wants the two sites to be capable of “surge efforts” that can go beyond 80 cores a year but to make 80 war reserve pits in addition to that, Kelley said. So clearly, she said, the production plans should trigger a full program review.

Conducting site-specific reviews is a way to slice the analysis into small segments and avoid looking at larger risks, such as transporting radioactive waste from South Carolina to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, Kelley said.

Two cross-country sites producing nuclear cores and radioactive waste is “going to impact the entire country,” she said.

A comprehensive review would assess all affected sites to get the full scope of possible environmental harm, said Geoff Fettus, senior environmental attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It also would allow all affected communities, such as Los Alamos and South Carolina counties surrounding the Savannah River Site, to weigh in, Kelley said.

Tom Clements, director of SRS Watch in South Carolina, said the agency’s decision not to conduct a comprehensive environmental review is premature given it has yet to determine whether the stalled mixed oxide fuel plant at Savannah River, which would have converted weapons-grade plutonium commercial reactor fuel, can be converted to a pit-production facility.

Construction of the plant was shut down a year ago due to legal tussles and cost overruns.

The facility is beset with an array of problems, such as a defective central-air system, Clements said.

The 2008 review of the pit production program made a cursory analysis of how to handle two radioactive waste streams, and that was long before Savannah River was in the picture, he said.

“Their analysis … is woefully inadequate,” Clements said.

By Scott Wyland

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