An Albuquerque-based nonprofit that advocates for nuclear disarmament filed a lawsuit this week asking a U.S. District Court judge to order the release of federal documents detailing the costs and risks of plutonium work planned at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
In its lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the federal District Court in Albuquerque, the Los Alamos Study Group accuses the National Nuclear Security Administration of improperly withholding a study that it says should be released upon request under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
While congressional staff members and some lab officials have been briefed on the document, argues the nonprofit — a longtime critic of the lab and the U.S. Department of Energy — the unclassified study has not been released to the public and has not been provided to the group, despite a request made under the public records law more than three months ago.
The National Nuclear Security Administration in November completed the roughly 400-page study comparing the potential costs, time frame and risks of creating a proposed assembly-line factory for plutonium pit production at various Energy Department sites.
The Los Alamos lab has been producing pits — the grapefruit-size fission triggers that ignite nuclear weapons — on a smaller scale for decades, and New Mexico’s congressional delegation has been pushing to keep that work in the state as the nation’s mission to modernize its nuclear weapons arsenal ramps up.
A summary of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s study, leaked in December, shows that Los Alamos and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina are the final contenders for the pit factory, expected to cost up to $7.5 billion and take 10 to 20 years to complete.
According to the leaked material, which was reviewed by The New Mexican, the work would take longer to complete in Los Alamos and costs would be higher there.
The Los Alamos Study Group also contends the risks of pit production at Los Alamos are significant and should be disclosed to the public.
The nonprofit’s director, Greg Mello, said in a statement Thursday, “We believe [pit production] is proceeding ‘under cover of darkness’ on purely ideological grounds, and not on any defensible managerial basis. … It is a vast waste of resources, though lucrative for a few contractors.”
The organization believes the U.S. already has an excess of pits in its weapons stockpile and that future production would present a grave risk to the public while wasting public funds. The U.S. arsenal contains 23,000 pits, the group says in its suit, at least a third of which its says are viable and would last through 2063.
Los Alamos began producing plutonium pits after the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado was shut down in the early 1990s, following a federal raid that found the plant rife with environmental contamination and nuclear safety violations.
Residents in the Rocky Flats area spent more than two decades entangled in a lawsuit with the plant’s operators after plutonium was found to have traveled to thousands of homes.
Los Alamos has had its share of nuclear safety violations, as well.
The lab’s plutonium facility, which restarted pit production in 2015 following a yearslong pause over safety concerns, was cited for a series of violations in the last year alone. Several workers were contaminated with radiation in 2017, and a small fire burned one worker. The lab was fined several million dollars for mishandling an out-of-state shipment of plutonium, and federal inspectors raised concerns recently about how the lab manages the toxic metal beryllium.
Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or email@example.com.