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Group urges case against new facility at LANL
Nonprofit says lab exceeding environmental footprint with planned construction

By Roger Snodgrass | For The New Mexican

The Los Alamos Study Group is urging the Energy Department to think twice about plans for a new nuclear facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Otherwise, the nonprofit group said it would take legal action, charging the lab with exceeding its environmental footprint on a project which has grown in scope from $350 million to $4.2 billion since its impacts were last studied in 2003.

"We hope (the National Nuclear Security Administration) is responsive because it is in their interest to be responsive," Greg Mello, the group's executive director, said Thursday. "But we are prepared to compel compliance, if we can."

The subject of the complaint is the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility, which was originally conceived by the laboratory as a replacement for an aging building known as the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building, but has evolved over time into what the study group describes as a facility "to facilitate the large-scale production of plutonium warhead cores ('pits')."

Jennifer Wagner, a spokeswoman for NNSA, said Thursday afternoon that the agency "is already undertaking a review that will tell us if we need additional (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis."

Noting that NNSA does not comment on potential litigation, she added, "The agency has initiated the process of preparing a supplement analysis for the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility."

Out of that, she said, would come the determination of whether to supplement the existing analysis or to prepare a new environmental impact statement, if any new NEPA documentation is required.

During the news conference, Mello said a private conversation among NNSA officials would not meet the legal standard.

Mello said he doesn't want an analysis "that ratifies a decision already made," he said. "So we want NNSA to stop work on the project."

Mello made public a letter of intent addressed to Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Administrator Thomas D'Agostino of the NNSA. The letter serves formal notice of legal action after 20 days unless a new environmental impact statement is prepared for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility.

Thomas Hnasko, an environmental attorney with Hinkle, Hensley, Shanor & Martin LLP, will serve as the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs. He said he had agreed to analyze the legal basis of the case and file if necessary.

In his opinion, it was obvious that there was very little relationship between the initial project covered by an impact statement in 2003 and the project currently under way.

Among the most obvious changes, in addition to the cost and the significant traffic disruptions announced by the laboratory, were construction requirements, including a concrete and soil grout specification that grew from 6,255 cubic yards to 347,000 cubic yards, or 55 times the original amount for the CMRR project as a whole.

The additional concrete will require an estimated 24,000 dump truck trips to deliver the sand and gravel, a task which is not analyzed in the original statement.

The study group analysis suggests that a new review of alternatives would be unlikely to choose the current plan as the best approach.

Congressional appropriation bills pending approvals increase funding from $97 million to $220 million for design work and to begin construction by the end of the next fiscal year.

"We don't want the government to sleepwalk into this huge project," Mello said.

The study group claims to have approximately 2,691 members and supporters who live within a 50-mile radius of LANL and said the group and many of its members "have been intimately involved in analysis and education regarding LANL plutonium infrastructure and programs since October 1989," and many of these members "would be directly harmed by the environmental impacts of CMRR-NF."

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