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Critics line up against LANL plutonium lab

JERI CLAUSING, Associated Press
Friday, May 27, 2011

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — It's a familiar scene in New Mexico: Peace activists, environmentalists and scientists lining up to oppose expansions of the military and nuclear facilities that are a major economic engine for the state.

They were back in force this week, this time to oppose the "bomb factory," ''cash cow" and "jobs program for scientists" — their names for a $5.8 billion nuclear lab being designed to replace the 60-year-old lab at Los Alamos National Laboratories where scientists make and store the "pits," or cores, of the nation's nuclear bombs. It's a project that has been on the drawing board for nearly a decade, and one that won't be finished for at least another decade.

But it's back in the public spotlight, thanks to new study mapping earthquake danger in the area, a doubling of the facility's estimated cost and public outcry for caution in light of the nuclear disaster that followed the Japan earthquake and tsunami.

"The lesson of Fukushima is don't build nuclear reactors and nuclear facilities in unsafe geological areas," Dave McCoy, director of Citizen Action, said during a contentious hearing Monday where activists argued with officials enforcing a three-minute speaking limit.

While safety concerns are at the front and center of any nuclear debate, the deeper underlying controversy here centers around the more than 20-year-old efforts by anti-nuclear activists to scale back and force a change in the long-term mission for Los Alamos, which was founded during World War II to develop the world's first nuclear weapons.

"We've been working for a diversification of the mission ever since the end of the cold war in 1989," said Joni Arends of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, whose members attended the public hearings held last week in Albuquerque, Los Alamos, Espanola and Santa Fe.

"... If we are really moving toward a nuclear weapons-free world, the lab has an enormous amount of expertise that should be used in the field of non-proliferation and the rounding up of these materials."

Instead, critics charge, the lab is looking to beef up its nuclear bomb making capabilities with the new lab that they say would dramatically increase its nuclear bomb-making and storage capacities.

While a decision on whether to move forward with the facility is not expected until fall, the announcement last week of nuclear weapons expert Charles McMillan's appointment as the new director for Los Alamos underscored critics' concerns that the 60-year-old bomb building mission for the facility that employs some 12,000 workers is far from abating.

"It's very clear that Los Alamos is, has and will be primarily a nuclear weapons laboratory," said Greg Mello, a former environmental regulator at the lab and co-founder of the 20-year-old Los Alamos Study Group. "In fact, the emphasis on nuclear weapons and on the manufacture of nuclear weapons is expected to increase for the next decade or more."

Last week's hearings centered on the new lab, which is officially called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility.

Lab spokeswoman Tony Chiri disputes assertions the intent of the lab is to increase the facility's bomb-making mission. The new building is needed, she said, because the original lab is nearly 60 years old and it has a fault lining running under it.

"Right now it really just a matter of we have an old facility," she said. "The work needs to continue and we need to put it in a safer facility."

And she said that while some of the documents talk about the new facility having the capability to build new bombs, "we would not be building pits in the new lab. "She said the lab's mission is also to analyze and understand nuclear elements and what they do "which contribute to our understanding of nuclear weapons."

Still Mello and other critics say the building is simply not needed. His group had sued to stop consideration of the project, alleging that the revisions being made to the building's plans since it was first proposed in 2003 require the federal government to draw up a new, rather than revised, environmental impact statement. A judge dismissed that suit on Monday, the day the hearings began.

Mello boycotted the hearings, saying administration statements indicate the new lab is already a done deal.

Still, he said Thursday that his group was considering appealing the judge's dismissal of the suit.

"The big picture end game is that we don't want this building built," he said. "We don't think it's justified, we think it's too expensive, it's not clear that it can be done safely."

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