Reading Room

Watchdog groups suing Biden administration over plutonium pit plans

June 29, 2021
Aiken Standard

By Colin Demarest,

A coalition of public-interest groups on Tuesday said it was suing the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration, accusing the agencies of shirking environmental obligations in their ongoing efforts to produce nuclear weapon cores, also known as pits.

The announced legal action is a salvo in a long-simmering standoff between the groups – including Savannah River Site Watch, Nuclear Watch New Mexico, and Tri-Valley CAREs – and the federal government, which has denied wrongdoing.

The watchdogs in February lobbied the newly installed Biden administration to conduct a holistic review of contemporary plutonium pit production plans, which came to prominence under the Trump administration and have since been endorsed by Biden’s energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, and his choice to lead the NNSA, Jill Hruby.

The lawsuit seeks to prevent the Energy Department from moving forward until a more rigorous evaluation is done. Such analysis could take months – or years – to complete, on top of the potentially protracted litigation.

“We do not want to have the community pitted against the government, but we see that is what is happening,” said Queen Quet, the chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Nation.

In a March letter to the S.C. Environmental Law Project, which is representing the groups, the NNSA said its environmental evaluations for plutonium pit production were thorough and in accordance with the governing National Environmental Policy Act.

“At this point, the NEPA review for pit production is complete,” wrote Timothy Fischer, the NNSA’s general counsel, “and the department has no current plans to revisit the NEPA review.”

That was, apparently, an unsatisfactory answer. No additional, comprehensive environmental documentation has since been published.

“NNSA is robbing the public of its right to comment on alternatives, yet those of us in frontline communities will bear the brunt of this refusal,” said Marylia Kelley of Tri-Valley CAREs, a monitor based in Livermore, California. “It is workers and the public who will suffer the risks of accidents, spills, leaks, radioactive exposures, and the production and transportation of plutonium wastes.”

The announcement from the groups and the S.C. Environmental Law Project, a nonprofit, comes one day after the NNSA said the pit plant at SRS had been greenlighted. Early estimates show the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility will cost between $6.9 billion and $11.1 billion – far more than previously expected. It is also expected to be finished between 2032-2035, years late.

“DOE’s rushed planning to unnecessarily expand nuclear bomb production has already resulted in a massive cost increase and significant delays in the SRS plutonium bomb plant,” said Tom Clements, the director of Columbia-based Savannah River Site Watch. “While more delays and cost increases appear likely, it is essential that DOE slow down and comply with requisite environmental laws before jumping into ill-conceived plans to expand plutonium pit production which would be a key part of a dangerous new nuclear arms race.”

The last place the plutonium triggers were made at scale, the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, was scuttled following an environmental investigation and raid involving the FBI and the EPA.

The NNSA is now pursuing a tandem strategy for pit production, leaning on South Carolina and New Mexico. At least 50 cores per year will be produced at SRS, officials have pledged, and at least 30 cores per year will be made at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Read the full story...