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Lab, watchdog group spar over nuclear facility

Feds urge dismissal of environment suit

Roger Snodgrass

9/22/2010

Los Alamos National Laboratory is seeking dismissal of an environmental lawsuit, saying it can neutralize legal objections with plans to supplement a 7-year-old environmental analysis of the lab's controversial new nuclear facility.

The subject of the complaint is the lab's Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility and, more specifically, a $4 billion structure for handling and storing plutonium.

After eight years of effort, the building is still in the design phase and now embroiled in litigation. The Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear watchdog based in Albuquerque, claims the building has outgrown its environmental footprint.

In a letter dated Sept. 17, an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice has asked the Los Alamos Study Group to withdraw its legal complaint. The letter says the lab is still working on its requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act, and therefore the environmental justification is not subject to legal action.

"You client's case is not ripe for judicial review," wrote trial attorney John Tustin in a letter on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, said the request amounts to an admission that the project needs additional analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, but the group disagrees with the remedy.

"They do seem to have a disconnect between the legal world of compliance and the actual world of the project," Mello said Wednesday. "They seem to think that they can put a paperwork patch on the tail of their noncompliance, but just keep going."

Thomas N. Hnasko, attorney for the study group, responded to Tustin in a letter today, reiterating the main point of the complaint, that the nuclear facility now in process bears virtually no relationship to the project analyzed under a 2003 environmental impact statement.

"Changed circumstances, significant new knowledge, changed national policies, dramatic increases in expected environmental impacts and a ten-fold increase in expected cost compel environmental and business-case analyses of new, reasonable and less environmentally-destructive primary alternatives to the current action," Hnasko wrote.

Tustin's letter said if the group declined his request, he would ask the court to dismiss the case.

The Los Alamos Study Group filed its case Aug. 16 in U.S. District Court.

An appropriation bill waits for Congress to authorize $166 million in funding for the project in the next fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. Most observers believe the measure is unlikely to pass before the November elections and that Congress will resort to a continuing resolution to fund the government in the interim.

Tustin was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Contact Roger Snodgrass at roger.sno@gmail.com.


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