US plutonium production plan likely to spur legal challenge

AP National News

FILE – This undated file aerial view shows the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. The agency that oversees the United States’ nuclear arsenal says it doesn’t need to do any broad environmental reviews of a proposal that calls for ramping up production of plutonium triggers at federal installations in New Mexico and South Carolina. The National Nuclear Security Administration on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, released a supplemental analysis related to the project, saying the determination was made after reviewing extensive documentation and public comments that were received last year. (The Albuquerque Journal via AP, File)

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The agency that oversees the United States’ nuclear arsenal says it doesn’t need to do any broad environmental reviews of a proposal that calls for ramping up production of plutonium triggers at federal installations in New Mexico and South Carolina.

The National Nuclear Security Administration on Wednesday released a supplemental analysis related to the project, saying the determination was made after reviewing extensive documentation and public comments that were received last year.

Nuclear watchdogs, government accountability advocates and other critics argue that the decision skirts requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and a decades-old court order that included a mandate for an environmental review when the federal government embarked on plans to boost production to more than 80 of the nuclear cores a year.

A key component of every nuclear weapon, most of the plutonium cores in the stockpile were produced in the 1970s and 1980s, according to the nuclear agency.

Federal officials have set a deadline of 2030 for ramped-up core production, with work being split between Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. At stake are jobs and billions of dollars in federal funding that would be needed to revamp existing buildings or construct new factories to support the work.

The NNSA said it would prepare an environmental impact statement on core-making at Savannah River. A less extensive review is being done for Los Alamos, but watchdogs say that analysis will fall short of the nationwide public review required by such a significant proposal.

Lawyers for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Savannah River Site Watch and Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment first threatened legal action last fall. They reiterated Thursday that a legal challenge is possible since the nuclear agency has declined to prepare a broader review.

“We need to find smart ways to face the world’s renewed nuclear arms race. Unnecessary expanded production of questionable plutonium bomb cores is not the way to do it,” said Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Waste New Mexico.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, Coghlan said the federal government should be considering credible alternatives to ensuring the reliability and sustainability of the nuclear arsenal rather than the rubber stamping of a “nukes forever” agenda that is funded by taxpayers.

While the NNSA’s decision comes as President Donald Trump on Thursday proposed overhauling the half-century old National Environmental Policy Act, the issues surrounding plutonium pit production have spanned multiple presidential administrations.

Elected leaders in New Mexico and South Carolina long have been jockeying for the lucrative mission. Some members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have resisted the nuclear agency’s plan, arguing that production should be centered at Los Alamos — the once-secret city in northern New Mexico where the atomic bomb was developed decades ago as part of the Manhattan Project.

The mission of producing the cores has been based at Los Alamos for years but none have been made since 2011 as the lab has been dogged by a string of safety lapses and concerns about a lack of accountability.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico criticized the Trump administration Thursday for its proposed rollbacks, saying the environmental policy act is the only law that requires federal agencies to consider the environmental and climate related consequences of federal actions. As for the plutonium project, the senior senator has yet to say whether he would support more environmental reviews.

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