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Nuclear Facility Plans Continue
By John Fleck / Journal Staff Writer on Sat, Aug 27, 2011

The National Nuclear Security Administration wants to push ahead with its plans to build a multibillion dollar plutonium laboratory in Los Alamos, despite concerns about rising costs and seismic safety, according to a document released late Friday afternoon.

An environmental analysis, made public in final form Friday, calls for construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility, but continues to leave open key construction details as engineers try to figure out how to cope with seismic risk at the site.

In a statement, NNSA official Kevin Smith said the agency “carefully considered suggestions, alternatives and comments offered by stakeholders.”

Critics questioned the agency’s claim to have considered alternatives to the project, currently estimated to cost between $3.7 billion and $5.8 billion.

“NNSA offered no real alternatives to building the Nuclear Facility,” said Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

Greg Mello of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group criticized release of the new document late on a Friday afternoon.

“The release of this document during the Friday afternoon ‘news hole’ is a telling reminder of the insincerity of NNSA’s ‘public involvement’ processes,” Mello said. “We are eager to review its content, but the fact remains that it comes long after full federal commitment to the project and hundreds of millions of dollars in prior appropriations for this one specific project only.”

He called the environmental analysis “a sham.”

In hearings over the summer, project critics sharply questioned federal officials about whether they had adequately considered alternatives to the project, suggesting they may have been laying groundwork for a lawsuit on the question.

The building would take the place of a 60-year-old lab area known as CMR, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building, where scientists analyze samples of dangerously radioactive plutonium, work that is central to the lab’s nuclear weapons work.

Independent nuclear safety analysts have long called the old building a danger, but lab and federal officials have been unsuccessful over a two-decade period in settling on a plan to replace it.

The final study briefly considered and then ruled out the possibility of building the laboratory at another U.S. site with less seismic risk than Los Alamos, which sits atop mesas laced with faults. It also fell back on a 2004 study to conclude that upgrading the existing laboratory would not be feasible.

Lab critics have suggested both options should get a more serious look because of the dramatically increasing costs of the project. As recently as 2007, federal officials told congressional auditors they were confident the building could be completed for $800 million, and be finished by 2014. The more than fourfold increase in price since is accompanied by a completion date of 2023.

The final environmental analysis comes as members of Congress are raising questions about the project’s growing costs. In a June report, a House subcommittee pointed out that the new laboratory is larger than the building it is meant to replace. The subcommittee, in laying out a spending plan for the NNSA next year, called for “the adoption of cost-reduction strategies to make construction more affordable and to curb continued cost escalation.”

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