War/Security

Forces opposed to dangerous, extravagant nuke project get day in court

If you’re not a regular reader, you may be surprised to learn the federal government seeks to ram through a new nuclear facility that’s intolerable on a number of counts.

1. Its intended purpose is to build plutonium pits — the living, breathing heart of a nuclear weapon, where the chain reaction occurs. In other words, mad science at its most extreme.

2. Its projected cost is greater than all the work done on the Manhattan Project in New Mexico during World War II.

3. The land the building will occupy is seismically, uh, challenged.

Before proceeding, I’ll wait until you get over your spell of cognitive dissonance. Yes, this is what passes for disarmament in the Age of Obama. The Albuquerque Journal provided an overview about the Los Alamos National Lab project.

Federal officials want to push ahead with a proposed Los Alamos plutonium laboratory despite soaring cost estimates and questions about seismic safety, according to a new analysis released late Friday afternoon. But the study stops short of answering key questions about how best to build a structure capable of withstanding a major earthquake at the site.

The National Nuclear Security Administration [NNSA] study also brushes aside critics who argue that new understanding of earthquake dangers and … the resulting rising construction costs require a re-evaluation of whether the project as currently planned should go forward… The most recent version of the replacement plan would cost an estimated $3.7 billion to $5.8 billion, according to a National Nuclear Security Administration report to Congress in December. That is a four- to sevenfold increase of the estimated price just four years ago.

“NNSA and Los Alamos Lab arrogantly think they can proceed with a blank check from the taxpayers for this gold-plated project,” [Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico] said in a statement Friday evening.

Another New Mexico nuclear watchdog group, the Los Alamos Study Group, is about to present its long-gestating lawsuit against the NNSA and the Department of Energy. In his latest newsletter, executive Director Greg Mello explains.

At 9:00 am Wednesday April 27th, in the Brazos Courtroom . . . of the Federal Courthouse . . . Albuquerque, the Honorable Judge Judith Herrera will hear arguments from the Los Alamos Study Group and the federal defendants — the Department of Energy . . . and the [NNSA] over whether final design of the proposed huge plutonium facility in Los Alamos — called the “Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility” (CMRR-NF) — should be halted pending analysis of alternatives to the project.

The two opposing motions:

…whether a) to throw out the Study Group’s lawsuit, from the defendants; or b) temporarily pause the project, i.e. grant a “preliminary injunction,” in order to give the court the opportunity to hear evidence on the Study Group’s contention that the project cannot proceed without a valid, new environmental impact statement (EIS).

Mello continues.

Recently, Everet Beckner, NNSA’s Assistant Administrator for Defense Programs during the George W. Bush Administration … said that not pausing CMRR-NF to consider the implications of the Japanese nuclear crisis would be a mistake.  He has particularly pointed out the dangers of a fire in the proposed … plutonium storage facility [in the event of an earthquake], a possibility which LANS, the Bechtel-led corporation that manages Los Alamos, has said it hopes to make impossible — and therefore need not be analyzed.

However, LANS has also

…admitted that the safety of the … plutonium facility [as it currently stands] is more problematic than understood to date due to structural deficiencies in the building. [The] need for … structural renovation raise new questions about the practicality of proceeding with everything at once.

It seems the NNSA may have bitten off more than it can chew. I’ll break down the relevant paragraph of the LASG newsletter into bullet points.

  • existing and planned new programs in the building, including new pit production and industrial-scale production of plutonium dioxide for mixed-oxide (MOX) reactor fuel
  • the production of additional kinds of plutonium pits and in much larger numbers than before
  • while also trying to fix the building in fundamental ways
  • while also undertaking a giant construction project immediately adjacent to the facility
  • not to mention several “smaller” projects (in the $50-$300 million range) that NNSA hopes to start nearby as well.

Mello sums up:

We now know that this site is subject to seismic shocks twice as great as those experienced at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The full implications of LANL’s challenging geographic situation are only slowly being assimilated by the federal bureaucracy and contractor community. Both DOE and NNSA operate with an almost unbelievable “culture of optimism,” as defendants themselves name the problem.

All too often, the better part of optimism is denial, in this case, on the part of the federal government about the dangers and the eye-popping cost of work proposed for Los Alamos.

First posted at the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

 

4 replies »

  1. I have, in recent years, been one of those formerly anti-nuke types who’ve become convinced of the viability of nuclear power as the bridge to the second half of the 21st century, when hopefully we can run the world on sustainable energy resources. Coal, in particular, has made this an easy proposition to buy.

    But the disaster in Japan makes you rethink, and I’m really not sure about building anything like this anywhere near anything seismic.

    Thanks for the analysis.

  2. Well done, Russ. And I’ve never heard of the National Nuclear Security Administration. That name is open to a variety of interpretations of intent …

  3. As I always write, the Obama admin is fixing to spend a ton of money under the guise of gradual disarmament. Looks to me more like a retrenchment to guarantee nuclear weapons in perpetuity.

  4. Samuel:

    Two things:

    1. The construction project [ the CMRR-NF] in question is not related to producing electrical power. It is about reining in spending on an absurd nuclear WEAPONS project. see http://lasg.org and “GAO Report Challenges Nuclear Weapons Spending Spree”
    http://www.fas.org/blog/ssp/2011/02/gaoreport.php

    2. Before you “become convinced of the viability of nuclear power as the bridge to the second half of the 21st century” make sure you really do understand BOTH the economics and the health issues, in particular the issue of external vs. internal dose and dose “averaging”or “density”.

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