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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Plutonium Lab Work Gets Go-Ahead

By John Fleck

Journal Staff Writer

An Albuquerque judge Monday gave the green light to continue work on a proposed Los Alamos plutonium lab, dismissing a lawsuit by activists attempting to halt the project while new environmental studies are completed.

U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera ruled that a new analysis being completed by the National Nuclear Security Administration is sufficient to meet federal law.

A Los Alamos team is in the midst of designing the multibillion-dollar building, which is not projected to be completed until after 2020.

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, which filed the suit, said he and his colleagues were "disappointed" and had made no decision about a possible appeal.

"We are still assessing our options," Mello said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon.

The decision came as the federal agency began four days of public hearings in New Mexico on the project, beginning Monday in Albuquerque.

Los Alamos National Laboratory and federal officials say the building is needed to continue the lab's nuclear weapons work. It would contain space for scientists working with plutonium and other radioactive materials that are used in nuclear weapons.

Critics contend that the new building would enable the manufacture of new U.S. nuclear weapons, and is not needed as the U.S. stockpile declines.

The project has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. The most recent cost estimate is $3.7 billion to $5.8 billion, a fourfold to sevenfold increase over the estimated price just four years ago.

The Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group had asked for an injunction halting design work on the building, known as the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility.

In a statement, NNSA spokeswoman Toni Chiri said the agency is "pleased with Judge Herrera's decision."

"The NNSA is committed to carrying out this process in an appropriate and responsible manner," the statement continued, "as we seek feedback from the community on the CMRR Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement through the National Environmental Policy Act process."

The Study Group argued that the work violates the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental studies before federal agencies can take action on a project.

A detailed environmental study on the project was completed in 2003, but the Study Group argued in court filings that the project has changed sufficiently since that time and a new study is needed.

In particular, new studies of seismic risk at Los Alamos triggered a major redesign effort now under way, which substantially increased the size and cost of the building.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, in response to the changes, launched a new "supplemental" environmental analysis. The Study Group argued that the supplemental analysis was insufficient, and that all design work should be halted while a detailed new environmental study is completed.

In her ruling, Herrera disagreed, saying the supplemental study meets the law's requirements, and that design of the building should be allowed to continue while the report is completed.


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