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Senate OKs defense bill, which presses for decision on pit work

November 16, 2017

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

The U.S. Senate on Thursday approved a nearly $1 billion funding increase for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which will boost work at New Mexico’s national laboratories and underground nuclear waste storage site.

The state’s U.S. senators lauded final passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2018, which carries a $700 billion price tag, saying it would strengthen defense programs based in New Mexico, as well as the state’s economy, and would help to preserve an independent advisory board that oversees safety at nuclear weapons labs.

It also includes tens of millions of dollars for construction projects at Cannon, Holloman and Kirkland Air Force bases.

“New Mexico’s labs, military bases, and federal installations are invaluable assets to our national security and engines of our state’s economy,” Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall said in a statement about the measure, which heads next to President Donald Trump.

The bill, which authorizes about $5 billion for operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, puts pressure on the National Nuclear Security Administration to move forward with a report that could determine whether Los Alamos will carry out the nation’s mission of increasing production of plutonium pits over the coming decades.

Los Alamos restarted work on the mission in late 2015, part of modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

But questions have been raised by independent safety boards, congressional representatives and an investigative news agency about Los Alamos’ ability to handle increasing quantities of nuclear materials and conduct such perilous work safely.

Frank Klotz, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, has said a report is underway to assess risks at Los Alamos and compare its capability of conducting the work with the capabilities and risks at other Energy Department sites. The report was due in late summer but has not been made public.

Nuclear watchdogs and newspapers in South Carolina have speculated that the agency may be looking at the Savannah River Site as an alternative location for pit production.

An amendment to the defense bill would require the agency to release the report within 30 days of the act taking effect, and it would require a report to Congress by the chairman of the Nuclear Weapons Council within 60 days, including projected costs.

If an alternative to Los Alamos is not established within 150 days of the defense bill’s enactment, Los Alamos would carry out the plutonium pit mission.

The amendment was led by Heinrich and supported by Udall, according to a news release.

Part of the criticism lobbed at Los Alamos came from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent panel appointed by the president that reports to the energy secretary. The board, which oversees safety at nuclear weapons sites, held a hearing in Santa Fe in June questioning Los Alamos’ ability to build pits, given its poor safety record and aging facilities.

Soon after, the Trump-appointed Republican chairman of the safety board recommended that the board be defunded, despite objections from other board members. And more recently, Klotz said it would be in the best interest of the board to orally deliver its weekly safety reports, so they would not be accessible to the public or members of the media.

The defense bill, however, outlines $30.6 million in funding for the board for the next fiscal year and includes stipulations that the board report to Congress and that its funding levels remain sufficient to carry out its work within 10 days from when the president’s budget is finalized.

“We have seen too many serious safety and security lapses at DOE nuclear sites in recent years, including in New Mexico,” Udall said. “The DNFSB is integral to providing oversight to keep workers and the community safe, and if the board believes more safety reviews will protect public safety, then Congress needs to know so that we can consider additional funds.”

Heinrich said he will continue to fight to “assure the [Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board] has the resources it needs to provide the critical oversight and transparency essential to maintain public confidence.

“We have an obligation to protect the health and safety of workers at our Department of Energy facilities and to clean up radioactive waste left behind by our nuclear programs,” he added.

Serious safety issues this year that the safety board has identified include a worker suffering second-degree burns, the mishandling of plutonium metals in violation of federal regulations, and two instances in which a team of workers was exposed to radiation, some of whom were involved in multiple incidents.

The lab also was found in violation of federal regulations for shipping nuclear materials by air rather than cargo.

Greg Mello, director of the nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group, said many of the priorities outlined in the bill would instead harm the state, while the pit amendment would force the Department of Energy’s hand to make rushed decisions without fully vetting the alternatives.

“The plutonium ‘pit’ production aspect of this bill is particularly troubling,” he said in an email. “… These priorities guarantee the continuation of economic and social failure for our state and our nation, undercutting the work of more progressive, environmentally-oriented leaders.

“None of this benefits New Mexico,” he said.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.


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