Watchdogs Issue Second Demand for Nation-Wide Environmental Review of Expanded Plutonium Pit Production

Today, lawyers for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Savannah River Site Watch and Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment sent a second letter to Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Rick Perry and Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the head of the semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The letter demands a nation-wide programmatic environmental impact statement for the agencies’ proposed expanded production of plutonium pits, the fissile cores or “triggers” of nuclear weapons. Invoking the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the letter concludes:

“…we advise the agencies that timely compliance with NEPA is the best means for the agencies to keep these [expanded plutonium pit production] projects on track, as a failure to rigorously comply with NEPA may necessitate litigation, including if necessary motions for injunctive relief, all of which would likely increase the expense of DOE’s and NNSA’s proposed actions and extend their timelines further. Accordingly, we strongly encourage DOE and NNSA to come into compliance with NEPA by preparing a new or supplemental PEIS for its proposals regarding plutonium pit production, and to do so immediately. If the agencies continue on their current trajectory, we will have no choice but to evaluate all our options to enforce compliance with federal environmental laws.”

As background, on May 10, 2018, the Departments of Defense and Energy jointly announced that plutonium pit production would be expanded from the currently sanctioned level of 20 pits per year at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in northern New Mexico to at least 30 pits per year, plus redundant production of at least 50 pits per year at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina, which would be a completely new mission there.

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Plutonium Pit Production NEPA Talking Points

LANL Molten Plutonium for Pit
Molten plutonium in a crucible. 

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is the landmark environmental law which requires executive agencies to give the public the opportunity to formally review and comment on major federal proposals. These talking points outline the history of the Department of Energy’s NEPA compliance on its various proposals concerning the production of plutonium pits (the fissile cores of nuclear weapons). The conclusion is that DOE’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is legally required to prepare a supplemental programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) on its current plan to expand plutonium pit production.

There are at least three reasons why NNSA must complete a supplemental programmatic environmental impact statement for expanded plutonium pit production:
1)    Implementing regulations for the National Environmental Policy Act stipulate that “DOE shall prepare a supplemental EIS if there are substantial changes to the proposal or significant new circumstances or information relevant to environmental concerns…” 10. C.F.R. § 1021.314
2)    As precedence, since 1996 there have been five programmatic environmental impact statements related to pit production and its expansion. It is legally unlikely that NNSA could implement its current plan to expand plutonium pit production without a new supplemental PEIS.
3)    Now that NNSA is planning to produce more than 50 pits per year (or more than 80 pits under multiple shift operations), it is obliged by the 1998 court order to prepare a new PEIS.
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