The U.S. Department of Energy won’t conduct a new sitewide environmental review of Los Alamos National Laboratory as it gears up to produce 30 nuclear warhead triggers by 2026, a decision that has irked critics who say the agency is pushing through plans without assessing possible problems at the site.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, a branch of the agency, issued a final supplement this week to a 2008 environmental analysis of LANL, which includes its ability to make the plutonium pits that detonate warheads.
Officials said there was no need for a new sitewide study because little has changed overall in the past 12 years — a position they’ve firmly held since proposing the supplement in December.
“NNSA is committed to meeting its obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as it revitalizes the nation’s plutonium pit production capability to maintain the U.S. nuclear deterrent,” the agency said in a statement.
Watchdog groups, which have pressed for a full sitewide analysis, accused the agency of cutting corners for political reasons.
“With this decision, NNSA is slamming the door shut on public accountability while it rams through expanded plutonium pit bomb core production at the lab,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of the nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
The nuclear agency is requiring a sitewide review of the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, which is slated to produce 50 pits by 2030, because the facility has never made the plutonium cores.
In its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the Trump administration said it wants the two sites to make at least 80 pits a year to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal and defend against countries such as Russia, China and North Korea, which have improved their first-strike capabilities.
Plans call for LANL to not only produce 30 pits yearly but be able to surge to 80 pits for short periods. The most pits LANL has produced in a year was 11 for Navy missiles more than a decade ago.
The agency has proposed spending $835 million for LANL’s pit operations in the coming fiscal year. A House committee reduced the request to $680 million, which is still more than double this year’s $308 million.
The main changes that have occurred since 2008 are seismic upgrades to LANL facilities and a proposed $6 billion chemical and metallurgy research facility not materializing, the agency said.
Coghlan said much more has happened that requires a sitewide review.
At least one large wildfire has threatened the lab, a highly toxic chromium plume was discovered underground and a series of worker safety violations have been reported at the plutonium facility, Coghlan said.
Greg Mello, executive director of the nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group, said the 2008 planners envisioned the now-scrapped chemical and metallurgy research facility replacing the aging plutonium plant.
It’s unlikely the Cold War-era facility can be converted to a higher-production pit factory that would add 2,000 workers and run 24 hours a day, Mello said.
“The overall scale of the expansion was not foreseen in 2008,” Mello said.
A sitewide review is also needed to assess how local roads and housing have become strained from population growth in the past decade, he said. The feds also should take a closer look at the plateau’s geological instability, which includes faults and a deep layer of soft, ashy soil under a support facility that could collapse in a major earthquake, he said.
Climate change has begun to be felt more in recent years, tightening the water supply around Los Alamos, Mello said.
The agency also has rejected watchdogs’ requests to conduct a full program review of both the Los Alamos lab and the Savannah River Site.
Critics contend a 1998 court order requires a full environmental analysis when two or more sites are involved in pit production. Such a study is needed, for instance, to determine the impacts of moving radioactive waste cross-country between the two sites, they say.
But the agency makes a similar argument against a program review as it does against a LANL sitewide study, saying not enough has changed since 2008 to warrant it.
Also, the older plan called for producing 80 pits a year at LANL, and now that number will be split between two sites, lessening impacts on each area, the agency said in the supplemental review.