Fukushima Be Damned, Federal Court Brushes Off Seismic Nuke Risks
Regular readers are aware of how alarmed we are by the construction of a facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico intended, in large part, to manufacture something known as plutonium pits. Before examining the latest development in attempts to halt it, first some background on the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) from recent posts.
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 weapons, where the chain reaction occurs. In other words, mad science at its most extreme.
2. Its projected cost, adjusted for inflation, may be 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 (subject to seismic shocks as great as those experienced at Fukushima).
A watchdog association called the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) has been spearheading efforts to stop the CMRR-NF in its tracks via a lawsuit against the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Department of Energy (DOE). Re the objections to CMRR-NF, again from a previous post:
In the hearings Mello and Noted nuclear physicist Frank von Hippel, who, during Perestroika, helped sell the Russians on monitoring and verification (as chronicled in David Hoffman's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Dead Hand), testified. LASG's lawyer asked von Hippel why he thought a new study of alternatives to the CMRR-NF was called for? His reply (in truth, to an imaginary question: why do we need a facility that builds nuclear pits anyway?):
The need for large-scale pit production has vanished. In 2003, the [NNSA] was arguing that the [United States] needed the capability to produce 125 to 450 pits per year by 2020 to replace the pits in the US weapon stockpile that would be 30 to 40 years old by then. . . . But, in 2006, we learned that US pits were so well made that, according to a Congressionally-mandated review of Los Alamos and Livermore studies on pit aging, "Most primary types have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years as regards aging of plutonium." [Besides, although] the Los Alamos and Livermore National Laboratories have been lobbying to develop and manufacture new-design "reliable replacement warheads," and the Bush Administration supported the idea, Congress refused in 2007 to fund the program.
Also the updated U.S. Nuclear Posture Review Report mandates that
In any decision to [develop] warhead LEPs [Life Extension Programs], the United States will give strong preference to options for refurbishment or reuse. . . . the preferred strategy is to reuse existing pits where necessary, or simply refurbish the balance of the warhead. . . . As of the end of Fiscal Year 2009, the total size of the U.S. warhead stockpile was about 5,000 warheads . . . and about 14,000 pits recovered from [decommissioned] warheads . . . were in storage at the Pantex warhead assembly/disassembly facility in Amarillo.
In other words
There will be no shortage of pits to reuse.
Let's hope that those who worry that the United States would run out of these infernal little internal destruction machines will rest easy now.
Also testifying was LASG executive director Greg Mello. When asked by LASG's lawyer about the CMRR-NF's estimated cost, he responded.
In November 2010, the White House estimated the budget at "$3.7 to 5.8 billion." Defendants recently pushed back the projected date of a reliable cost estimate to 2015.
In fact (emphasis added)
In its submissions to Congress, NNSA is just writing "TBD" in the future cost and schedule columns.
Echoing von Hippel (or vice versa; not sure who testified first), Mello explained that the Department of Energy's science advisory group, known as JASON,
. . . reviewed research done at LANL and Livermore on pit life. JASON concurred with these labs that most U.S. pits would last for a century or more. There are also extra pits for almost every kind of warhead, thousands in all, and these reserves [as von Hippel also mentioned] are growing as warheads are dismantled. . . . Production of new plutonium pits is not necessary to maintain a very large, diverse, powerful nuclear weapons stockpile for several decades to come.
Besides which, 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. The NNSA is attempting to create
- 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.
In the lawsuit, LASG contended that the project should not proceed without a valid, new environmental impact statement (EIS) to address seismic risks that creation of the facility at Los Alamos might incur. Apparently, the area is at risk of earthquakes as large as those that rocked Japan. Worse, the site rests on loose volcanic ash especially susceptible to shifting should an earthquake occur, which can result in fire and the release of radiation.
An EIS hasn't been worked up for the facility since 2003 and LASG believes that simply revising it in the form of a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) is woefully inadequate in light of how much plans for the facility have expanded. Unfortunately, the judge didn't agree and dismissed the lawsuit. From LASG's latest newsletter:
Judge Herrera's opinion rested heavily on the [SEIS] now underway, stating that this process itself, which began only after the Study Group's litigation was filed, and its "public participation" component in particular were sufficient for the court to stay its hand -- and dismiss the lawsuit. The judge did not rule on the Study Group's motion to enjoin the project. [LASG] has been urging members of the public to stay away from the SEIS hearings, which it regards as illegitimate.
And which, as has been pointed out to me, began the day that the judge dismissed the suit. Of the hearings, Mello said
We need to call them 'hearings,' in quotations . . . because the public record is replete with Administration statements saying it is not under any circumstances going to reconsider its commitment to this project, unlike what is implied in the hearing process. . . . [LASG] has instead called citizens to engage substantively with government on all levels to challenge. . . . Local government resolutions supporting [LASG's] lawsuit were passed by four local governments.
In the end, writes Mello:
This decision, while disappointing, will not stop our opposition to this highly destructive project. It's a speed bump. If NNSA thinks they are in the clear now, they are wrong.
Nor does the ruling
. . . change the facts on the ground -- the high seismicity, the cramped site and poor geology, the lack of need, the lack of money, and the basic horror and immorality of the mission.
As I've mentioned before, the Los Alamos Study Group is manning the front lines of disarmament: the actual building of nuclear facilities. In a sense, what it's doing is trying to save the Obama administration -- and the United States -- from itself. The vast amount of money being spent on the CMRR-NF and the nature of one of its products -- the cores of nuclear weapons -- undermines any message of nonproliferation that we're trying to send to the world with initiatives such as the new START treaty. Excuse me if I repeat myself, but we're kidding ourselves if we think our disarmament double-dealing escapes the notice of a state like Iran.