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Officials back Los Alamos National Laboratory building design in environmental analysis

By Roger Snodgrass | For The New Mexican

4/22/2011

Federal officials overseeing Los Alamos National Laboratory released a draft environmental analysis of its plans for a new nuclear facility late Friday.

The document prepared by the National Nuclear Security Administration revised an outdated plan for the high-hazard facility that has been in the works for more than a decade. The building is considered pivotal to development of the next generation of nuclear weapons.

The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility would serve in part as a replacement for a 550,000 square-foot, 60 year-old radiological chemistry building. But the new nuclear facility is also central to developing a long-term capability for storing, handling and processing plutonium materials used in manufacturing and refurbishing nuclear warheads.

The document analyzed four alternatives, including one "no action" scenario. But the new supplemental environmental impact statement acknowledges that the facility as it was previously envisioned could not meet current safety standards. Two other options examined the less favored possibility of not building the nuclear facility but keeping the existing infrastructure or upgrading it to last another 30 years.

The preferred option under the new plan backs the project as it is being designed by LANL with the blessing of Congress and the Obama administration. But it also includes additional measures considered necessary for safety.

A new seismic study completed in 2007 contributed to the decision to rework the design.

The new facility carries a provisional price tag estimated in the $3.7 billion to $5.8 billion range. The estimated cost at the lower end represents a tenfold increase over the original estimate.

The new building in either of the new configurations at 344,000 square feet of floor space will be larger than the last version. In one dimension, 42 feet of extra space is prescribed for additional safety systems and equipment, including more fire suppression equipment and the electrical units needed to keep it running under extreme conditions.

Some of the increase in space can be attributed to thicker walls and other features called into play by current concerns related to earthquakes and other safety issues.

Not everyone is likely to be convinced by the new construction options. Earlier this month, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board wrote a letter to NNSA, raising questions about adequacy of a computer program, SASSI ("System for the Analysis of Soil-Structure Interaction") which is commonly used by DOE planners for seismic analysis in high-hazard nuclear facilities like what is proposed at LANL. The board's stated concern was that "these issues could lead to erroneous conclusions that affect safety-related structural and equipment design."

Nuclear Watch New Mexico criticized NNSA for releasing their proposal on Good Friday and Earth Day. The Los Alamos Study Group, meanwhile, will proceed with its legal challenge on Wednesday in the U.S. District Court in Albuquerque as it seeks a halt to all project planning pending further analysis.

Asked about the timing of the release, Tony Chiri of the NNSA regional office said, "It just worked out that way. We worked every day this week to get ready and managed to get it out a week ahead of the start of the public comment period."

The 45-day public comment period begins with a formal publication in the Federal Register, which has been arranged for April 29.

Public hearings will be held next month in Los Alamos, Española and Santa Fe.

Visit nnsa.energy.gov/nepa/cmrrseis for the full supplemental analysis.


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