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Concerns Remain on New Plutonium Lab After Years of Planning

The ultimate function of a planned multibillion-dollar plutonium research facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is still unresolved after years of planning. the Associated Press reported on Sunday. Questions on atomic safety and other matters also persist (see GSN, Oct. 24).

The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement complex is intended to replace a World War II-era plutonium facility at an earthquake-prone location. However, the specific types of nuclear and plutonium research activities to be conducted there remain in question, according to AP.

Officials argue the new plutonium complex will allow the laboratory to continue its role as the nation's leading center for nuclear arms upkeep and development by performing analytical research that will aid the work of the Plutonium Facility at Los Alamos -- the sole facility in the country in which plutonium warhead cores are produced.

Antinuclear groups accuse the Energy Department of seeking to ramp up generation of new nuclear bombs by turning what had primarily been a scientific institution into a weapons production plan.

The activist Los Alamos Study Group has filed two separate lawsuits against the project.

The anticipated final $5.8 billion expense for the facility exceeds by close to $1 billion New Mexico's entire yearly budget and represents a twofold boost from the annual appropriation for entire Los Alamos site. It comes at a time of severe federal belt-tightening.

Still, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, which manages the nation's nuclear-weapon complex, is progressing forward with the laboratory. Project chief Herman Le-Doux said the blueprints have been modified to incorporate advice from the country's foremost specialists on earthquakes.

The semiautonomous Energy Department agency has "gone to great extremes" to make certain the complex could handle a seismic eruption of a maximum 7.3 magnitude.

The majority of earthquake specialists think that a 7.3 magnitude earthquake is the strongest Los Alamos is likely to experience. However, a number of residents living in the area say there is not sufficient justification for taking the risk. The laboratory has faced danger from wildfires on two occasions in the last decade.

"The Department of Energy has learned nothing from the Fukushima disaster," watchdog group Citizens Action New Mexico Director David McCoy said at a recent hearing on the laboratory.

The meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan was caused by an earthquake and tsunami in March. The damaged plant has leaked radiation on a level not seen since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and has forced tens of thousands of residents to evacuate from the area.

Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Chairman Peter Winokur said "the board believes that no safety issue problem (in the nation's nuclear complex) is more pressing than the Plutonium Facility's vulnerability to a large earthquake" (see GSN, Nov. 18).

Winokur said the safety board has no worries about radiation fallout from an earthquake at the planned plutonium center so long as NNSA officials "follow through" in implementing all design plans.

Los Alamos Study Group head Greg Mello countered that laboratory officials could not be trusted to implement all of the safety designs for the new plutonium center. "Los Alamos doesn't have the safety ethos needed for a facility that will store the bulk of the nation's stockpile of plutonium."

Winokur highlighted two recent documents that touched on issues with atomic safeguards at Los Alamos. The memos show "that the operations out there are very challenging and that there is plenty of room for improvement," he said. Nonetheless, "it's fair so say" the contracting team that assumed management of Los Alamos in 006 has "improved safety at the sites," Winokur added.

The board chairman said he would leave it to Washington to judge the wisdom of building a new plutonium center near major earthquake fault lines.

"I'll leave that to Congress and DOE about whether or not they want to build a facility of that nature in that region of the country where they do have a fairly large earthquake threat" he said (Jeri Clausing, Associated Press/Google News, Dec. 4).

NTI Analysis