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NUCLEAR POLICY: Foes of N.M. plutonium lab await judge's decision
May 3, 2011

Hannah Northey, E&E reporter

A nuclear watchdog is suing the federal government to halt development of a proposed, multibillion-dollar plutonium facility in New Mexico that the activist group says has been poorly studied and would be built in an unsafe location.

The Los Alamos Study Group is suing the Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico . The court wrapped up a second day of hearings on the case yesterday and both sides are now awaiting a decision.

NNSA, a semiautonomous agency within DOE that oversees the country's nuclear weapons complex, says it wants to design a new chemical and metallurgy research lab to replace an aging facility at the Los Alamos National Lab about two miles south of Los Alamos in northern New Mexico.

But NNSA has not conducted the proper environmental analyses and is undermining the environmental legal process by moving forward with the project, which could cost more than $4 billion, the Los Alamos Study Group said.

More importantly, the facility -- a lab that will store, handle and process several tons of plutonium -- would sit atop "poorly consolidated" volcanic ash that could exacerbate any seismic activity in a major earthquake, said Greg Mello , the group's executive director. The layer of volcanic ash begins at a depth of 75 feet below the building, according to the lawsuit.

"Even if it weren't for our lawsuit, they have some serious problems," Mello said. "This is not a very practical project and as we told the courtroom ... the environmental impacts that we're talking about are also first and foremost impacts on national security programs at the Los Alamos National Laboratory."

In the late 1990s, NNSA determined that upgrades to the existing nuclear facility would be time-consuming and just marginally effective and that a long-term solution was needed to ensure the agency could continue performing activities to test nuclear materials.

The lab was built in the early 1950s to conduct chemical and metallurgical research to support the maintenance of nuclear weapons, nonproliferation, dismantlement and counterterrorism programs.

In 2003, NNSA issued an initial environmental impact statement (EIS) for constructing the replacement nuclear facility to create a more structurally sound space for conducting experiments.

But in 2007, the government published an updated probabilistic seismic hazard assessment that, according to Los Alamos Study Group's lawsuit, "increased significantly" seismic risk at the nuclear facility, finding that earthquakes up of a magnitude of 7.3 are believed possible.

NNSA changed the building's design to incorporate the new seismic information, which increased the footprint of the project and facilitated the need for a new supplemental EIS because the project had undergone substantial changes, the agency said.

The agency published the supplemental draft EIS in the Federal Register on April 16, and is taking public comment through June 13. The new analysis complies with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, NNSA said.

NNSA's preferred alternative is to proceed with construction of the replacement facility. It is considering altering construction plans to address seismic concerns.

But the Los Alamos Study Group said the project has fundamentally changed over the years and requires a new environmental review to comply with NEPA and that the government is required to consider alternatives to the project.

"This new information has had far-reaching consequences for the nature of the proposed nuclear facility project and its expected environmental impacts, particularly given the adverse engineering properties of the earth beneath the proposed facility," the group said.

Mello said the case reflects poorly on the Obama administration because the government is trying to move forward with the nuclear weapons program while ignoring and undermining NEPA.

Originally appeared in Greenwire, an E&E Publishing Service. Reprinted here with permission.

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