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Thursday, May 5, 2005

Analysis of LANL Planned; Lab May Build More Nuke Parts
By Adam Rankin - Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer

The U.S. Department of Energy may want Los Alamos National Laboratory to build more nuclear weapons parts.

In preparation for that possibility, and because of other anticipated changes in LANL operations, DOE decided late last week to develop a new sitewide environmental impact analysis for the lab that takes into account all its operations and programs.

The most recent such analysis was completed in 1999 and took five years to finish.

DOE's environmental compliance manager at Los Alamos, Elizabeth Withers, said she doesn't expect the new analysis to take as long and anticipates a draft version will be publicly available sometime in early 2006.

DOE had been planning to do a more limited supplemental analysis to the 1999 work but made the decision May 28 to do a completely new sitewide analysis when enough significant changes to LANL's operations were considered, including reduced operations for some programs.

Withers said the details on what will be in the analysis, such as the key facilities to be reviewed and what the changes might be, are still being worked out.

Environmental groups and lab watchdogs oppose an increase in weapons production work because of concerns over potential plutonium emissions and increased generation of nuclear waste, as well as the belief that such work violates international treaties on nuclear nonproliferation.

At the same time, they are pleased DOE has decided to redo LANL's sitewide environmental impact analysis. "The 1999 (sitewide environmental impact statement) was completely deficient in any analysis of environmental cleanup programs at Los Alamos," said Nuclear Watch of New Mexico's director Jay Coghlan. Coghlan and other groups say they plan to push DOE to include detail analyses on a variety of environmental and safety issues.

LANL officials and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., have in the past opposed expanded plutonium production work at LANL because they said it wouldn't fit the lab's research focus.

Over the past year, however, LANL's role has solidified as the nation's primary production facility for nuclear weapons triggers, called pits, and the laboratory has seen an increase in federal funding to do the work.

The decision to redo its sitewide analysis is an indication DOE plans to continue to rely on the lab's pit manufacturing capability, which began in the 1990s on an interim basis until a larger facility could be built.

But since Congress halved funding in January 2004 for a proposed Modern Pit Facility, conceived to build replacement nuclear triggers for aging weapons in the nation's stockpile, DOE decided to put off any decisions on whether to build the plant or where it might be.

At an estimated cost of $2 billion to $4 billion, the weapons plant would be able to produce 125 to 450 triggers pits a year of different types.

NNSA and DOE officials have said that capacity could be necessary to maintain the safety and security of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile by the time the plant is built around 2012.

Meanwhile, DOE is looking to possibly expand production at LANL until the pit plant is built, said John Ordaz, DOE's assistant manager for environmental management.

The 1999 analysis assumed LANL could produce 20 pits a year at its Technical Area-55 on an interim basis.

More recently, LANL officials have committed to producing 10 pits a year and to begin certifying them for inclusion in the weapons stockpile by 2007.

Withers said the new analysis will probably evaluate a production level of about 40 pits per year, still below the maximum production alternative of 80 pits a year considered in 1999.

Copyright 2005 Albuquerque Journal

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