Friday, July 02, 2010
Lab Watchdog Threatening Suit
By Phil Parker, Journal Staff Writer
A nuclear watchdog group is threatening to sue the National Nuclear Security Administration if it goes through with plans to build a massive new plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory without conducting a fresh analysis of that facility's impact on the environment.
An NNSA spokesperson said Thursday that a supplement analysis of a previous environmental analysis of the lab's proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement building is being prepared. The supplement analysis will determine whether the initial environmental impact statement needs to be updated or whether a new study must be commissioned.
That previous analysis was done in 2003, however, and in the minds of members in the Los Alamos Study Group there is no question: There must be another environmental impact study commissioned, because the project is more than 50 times larger than was envisioned in 2003.
The CMRR is intended to replace the lab's present CMR building, a plutonium lab that dates back to the 1950s. Lab officials have said the work there is vital to national security. Laboratory Deputy Director Ike Richardson said last month "We're in desperate need of an upgrade to that facility."
The new building would house 22,500 square feet of lab space, much of it for analyzing plutonium and other radioactive materials. It would take over a decade to build, and specs call for 122,000 cubic yards of structural concrete. The price tag could be as much as $4 billion.
LASG's Greg Mello said at a news conference Thursday he doesn't believe the project is necessary, but if the lab is going to build it, new report is needed that better considers the building's size, which has increased dramatically over the previous seven years — and especially since last year.
"It's only recently become apparent how big this is," Mello said.
Mello and other members of LASG expressed concern that any new study might simply be a formality for NNSA.
"We want an EIS (environmental impact study) starting at the beginning — looking at the scope of the project and at alternatives," Mello said. "We don't want a post-hoc analysis that ratifies decisions already made."
Construction could be a ways off. Lab representatives unveiled their plans for the building last month, along with other nearby construction projects along Pajarito Road between Los Alamos and White Rock. They stressed repeatedly that nothing is official until Congress passes a budget with the plans for CMRR building included.
At hearings in April, NNSA officials acknowledged it could be 2012 or 2013 before they will be able to accurately estimate a baseline cost for the building. Both Republicans and Democrats on both House and Senate military affairs committees have indicated that they expect NNSA to justify its funding requests this year, including for the CMRR building.
NNSA Deputy Director of Public Affairs Jennifer Wagner, while declining to discuss potential litigation, said the process is progressing as it should at this point.
"NNSA takes its commitment to environmental stewardship and the state of New Mexico very seriously," she said.