By Roger Snodgrass
An official of the nation's nuclear weapons agency said design work would continue on the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement nuclear facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory, even as a supplemental environmental review is under way.
National Nuclear Security Administration spokeswoman Jennifer Wagner said the agency is proceeding deliberately in order to meet its obligations required for a supplemental environmental impact statement.
The nuclear security group is under legal pressure to begin the environmental process from scratch because of significant changes of scale and cost. The agency has agreed to a more modest supplemental review, but a court challenge disputes that as insufficient.
On Friday, the Los Alamos Study Group filed a preliminary injunction to stop NNSA from spending any funds on "design or construction" of the multibillion-dollar facility or on an associated security perimeter until the environmental issue has been settled.
The study group's complaint describes a project that was expected to take 34 months, but is now scheduled to last 12 years in a project area that has quadrupled and for which construction materials have multiplied many times.
Before the court came up, LANL officials described a project that had expanded to include several other construction sites in the Pajarito corridor. Along with the security perimeter for the new building, the work would include a revitalization program for the Plutonium Facility, a replacement for the Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility and work on the Transuranic Waste Facility.
According to the most recent petition from the study group, the work would encompass at least eight technical areas and includes the relocation of Pajarito Road.
One question is whether NNSA has already decided on the nuclear facility and whether it is so invested its own plans that it would be impossible to choose a different course.
"It looks to me like they crossed the Rubicon a long time ago," said Lindsay Lovejoy, a Santa Fe lawyer, who has joined the plaintiff's legal team.
A lab official in a community presentation in June said 35 construction packages were planned and the beginning of the infrastructure package was scheduled for March 2011.
In an affadavit, Don Cook, NNSA's deputy administrator for defense programs, said $210 million had been spent in six years of building design and analysis and that the overall project design was less than 50 percent complete.
Stopping the project, he wrote, would involve "firing most, if not all, of the 283 LANL and contract staff" employed on it.
He also swore that no construction was under way, nor would occur.
The question of NNSA's intentions arose Friday, when the Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor reported that a LANL procurement officer had suspended all procurements on the chemistry and metallurgy project.
Contacted at the laboratory, support facilities manager Tony Ladino referred a reporter to NNSA headquarters in Washington, D.C., saying that his remarks had been taken out of context.
NNSA officials have been consistent about their intention to continue the design work, but did not directly respond to the question about construction procurement.
Meanwhile, estimates for that project have grown from a projected $3.7 billion to a range of $3.7 billion to %5.8 billion, according the Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor.
Contact Roger Snodgrass at firstname.lastname@example.org