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For Immediate Release
Los Alamos Study Group Files Suit against Department of Energy, NNSA,
Agencies Violated National Environmental Policy Act
Giant Project Widely Seen As Politically Necessary for“New START,”
Albuquerque, NM – The Los Alamos Study Group today filed a complaint in federal District Court in Albuquerque to halt further investment in a massive underground plutonium facility proposed at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).
If built, it would be by far the most expensive government project ever built in New Mexico except the interstate highways. Its primary purpose is to increase production capacity for new plutonium warhead cores (“pits”).
The complaint was filed against the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
The Study Group is being represented by Thomas Hnasko of the Hinkle, Hensley, Shanor and Martin law firm.
The Study Group alleges that the DOE and NNSA have violated the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) by preparing to construct a greatly-expanded “Nuclear Facility" as part of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) project without an applicable Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
On July 1 the Study Group sent a letter to DOE and NNSA officials notifying them of their intent to pursue a court-ordered injunction if NNSA persisted in working on the giant facility without a new EIS.
NNSA wrote an EIS for an earlier version of the facility in 2003. At that time the facility was to cost one-tenth as much, use one-fiftieth as much concrete, take one-fourth the time to build, and entail far fewer environmental impacts (see below). NNSA’s July 30th reply to the Study Group’s July 1 letter admitted to “changes” to the proposed facility and said the agency was internally reviewing the issue.
“The time for cozy internal review has past,” said Study Group director Greg Mello. “Everyone knows the project’s costs, challenges, and impacts have exploded, and many parties, including NNSA and congressional committees, are starting to worry that the project has gotten too big, too expensive, and too risky. The underground behemoth NNSA now proposes to build bears little resemblance to the light, above-ground structure proposed in 2003. Any ‘supplemental’ analysis of the existing plan falls far short of what the law requires and what all parties – especially NNSA – badly need.
“In a nutshell, NNSA changed the project to which it had committed without telling anyone, and without environmental analysis of alternatives either to the project, to its design, or to its construction methods. This is illegal, so NNSA has to stop.
"We believe NNSA will see the value of reassessing this project through a new NEPA analysis," continued Mello. "NEPA's procedural requirements exist to help federal decisionmakers. If NNSA had followed the law, the agency would not be squandering so much money on this facility now. NNSA should halt further investment in the project and conduct a new NEPA analysis beginning with an objective, open review of better alternatives.”
Initial plans for what has mushroomed into today’s huge Nuclear Facility were first announced by Senator Bingaman in 1999. For several years, House appropriators tried to kill or pause the project, which they felt was premature at best, but it was funded by Congress each year over their objections, largely through the strenuous efforts of Senator Domenici.
Many of the project’s difficulties can be traced to just a few major causes. Changes in DOE’s “Design Basis Threat” helped drive the proposed facility underground – into a thick stratum of loose volcanic ash which cannot support it. The magnitude and frequency of earthquakes expected at the site has increased dramatically, requiring much heavier construction. Congress, acting through the independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, asked NNSA to include industry-standard safety features which NNSA had not originally intended to include. Meanwhile NNSA has struggled to maintain what it calls a “hotel concept” for the big facility, so its programs and missions can be changed at any time, which has proven challenging from the design perspective under these seismic conditions.
Usable floor space has shrunk to half what was originally foreseen while gross building area has increased by 44%. Now only 14% of the proposed building would be usable for NNSA programs.
NNSA proposes to begin construction years before completing preliminary design, in violation of its own management orders and despite numerous critiques of the agency’s poor project management by government auditors.
Meanwhile the basic rationale for the building, never at all sound in the Study Group’s view, has deteriorated.
The U.S. has approximately 24,000 pits, including at least 100% redundancy in tested, stockpiled pits for each delivery system. In infrastructure planning terms, these pits last essentially forever. NNSA has no pit production mission now and need never have one unless the nuclear arsenal is changed for reasons other than maintaining current levels of reliability, safety, and security. Especially with its astronomical costs, extensive environmental impacts, and increasing management risks, the Study Group believes NNSA’s mandates can be fulfilled in far more practical ways than by pursuing what amounts to the wrong building for the wrong purpose in the wrong location.
The Study Group's complaint details numerous fundamental changes in the project over the last seven years, as well as various grossly amplified and entirely new environmental impacts. These include:
The Study Group has examined the relationship between NNSA’s infrastructure and programs for many years, and believes there are many simpler, cheaper, faster, less risky, and less environmentally damaging alternatives to NNSA’s plan. The proposed Nuclear Facility is, in the Study Group’s view, very poorly justified from the nuclear deterrence perspective, let alone any other.
Study Group director Mello: “Technically and managerially speaking, we do not believe this project is helpful, let alone necessary, to maintain today’s nuclear arsenal indefinitely to existing high standards of safety, security, and reliability. The building’s purpose – to expand manufacturing capacity for pits to put in modified or new warheads only, not existing warheads – undermines confidence, wastes agency resources, and introduces huge risks and safety problems into an agency and enterprise that claim to want less, not more, risks and problems.