Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, says that the budget request would allocate more taxpayer dollars to the country’s nuclear weapons programs since the Cold War ended 30 years ago.
“Globally Trump’s nuclear weapons budget is fueling a new nuclear arms race,” he said in a statement. “It solidifies Los Alamos Lab’s future as a nuclear bomb plant, while nonproliferation, renewable energy and cleanup programs are held flat or cut.”
SANTA FE, N.M. — The National Nuclear Security Administration would get $19.8 billion under President Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2021 — a 20% increase from this year’s budget — about half of which would go toward supporting the U.S.’s nuclear weapons programs.
According to a Department of Energy fact sheet distributed on Monday, $9.5 billion of NNSA’s budget would be put toward efforts to “sustain and modernize the U.S. nuclear stockpile.” Of that, $4.3 billion is earmarked for stockpile management and $2.5 billion is for production modernization to support production capabilities for nuclear weapons. That includes funds for equipment, facilities and personnel “to reestablish the Nation’s ability to produce (plutonium) pits.”
DOE hopes to ramp up shipments of nuclear waste to NM repository
Officials from the U.S. Department of Energy are hoping to ramp up shipments of nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad to about 17 per week by 2023. The facility is currently accepting about 10 per week. To meet the goal of increasing shipments, Acting Manager of the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office Greg Sosson said numerous ongoing infrastructure upgrades at the facility were needed.
“Infrastructure ages. We understand we have a lot more waste stream we’re going to tackle,” Sosson said. “These are really good projects to make sure WIPP is sustainable in the future so we can perform our important mission.”
Sosson, at Monday’s annual WIPP Legislative Breakfast in Santa Fe, said officials plan on WIPP accepting up to 350 shipments of transuranic nuclear waste in the next year from numerous DOE facilities, including 80 from Los Alamos National Laboratory and 195 from Idaho National Laboratory.
But to continue to accept waste at an increasing pace, Sosson said the facility must solve its airflow problem.
“…the pit issue has proved politically thorny since then, with Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) needling the agency over the last few budget cycles about the need to build a pit plant anywhere other than Los Alamos.”
The head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) would not rule out the possibility here Thursday that one of the agency’s two planned plutonium pit factories could independently supply all the fissile nuclear weapon cores initially required for planned refurbishments of U.S. nuclear weapons.
“[W]e are not looking at [using] one exclusive of the other,” Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), told sister publication Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor in a question-and-answer session during a breakfast hosted by area nonprofits the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance. “That is not our plan.”
In a 2020 budget bill signed before the holidays, Congress at last funded the first step in a plan the NNSA publicly announced in 2018: produce at least 80 plutonium pits a year starting in 2030 by upgrading an existing pit plant, the PF-4 Plutonium Facility at the Los Alamos National Lab, and converting the partially built Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site into a new pit plant called the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility (SRPPF).
SRPPF would get more than $400 million of the $710 million or so appropriated for the entire Plutonium Sustainment account. The NNSA is the semiautonomous Department of Energy agency in charge of U.S. nuclear weapons and materials.
“NNSA’s refusal to complete programmatic environmental review before plunging ahead with plans to more than quadruple the production authorization for plutonium bomb cores flies in the face of our country’s foundational environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act, and a standing federal court order mandating that the government conduct such a review,” – Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CARES
The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) will not complete a programmatic study for environmental impacts of increased plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Labs (LANL) and one other lab located in South Carolina. The decision to not do so drew criticism from Nuclear Watch NM and other groups, who argue such assessments are required by law under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and an existing court order.
Plutonium pits are the radioactive cores of nuclear warheads where the chemical reactions occur that cause the warhead to detonate. The U.S. made thousands of cores during the Cold War, but pit production has all but stopped in the last thirty years.
Now, the federal government is getting ready to ramp up pit production in order to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and “assure the nation has a safe, secure and credible deterrent,” said Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the Department of Energy Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and the NNSA Administrator, in a statement. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review calls for at least 80 plutonium pits to be produced per year by 2030, with a target of 30 pits produced annually at LANL and 50 pits produced annually at Savannah River Site.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will require a federal pollution permit be used to regulate Los Alamos County’s contaminated stormwater, which for years has flowed into streams and the Rio Grande, a primary source of drinking water.
Attorneys representing the Taos-based advocacy group Amigos Bravos said their client’s September lawsuit against the EPA pushed the agency to require the permitting under the Clean Water Act.
The EPA issued preliminary findings in 2015 that showed pollutants in some parts of Los Alamos National Laboratory property and other areas of Los Alamos County far exceeded state health and water quality standards, yet the agency failed to take action, according to the Oregon-based Western Environmental Law Center.
“The EPA finally took a hard look at where these pollutants are coming from,” said Andrew Hawley, a law center attorney, in an interview. “The pollutants of concern were showing up in the tributaries going into the Rio Grande.”
EPA representatives at the regional office in Dallas couldn’t be reached Tuesday to comment on the agency’s decision or discuss the timeline for implementing the permit.
The contractor that’s been in charge of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s operations for the past year lost track of 250 barrels of waste, while the company heading the legacy cleanup mislabeled and improperly stored waste containers and took months to remedy some infractions, according to the state’s yearly report on hazardous waste permit violations.
Triad National Security LLC, a consortium of nonprofits that runs the lab’s daily operations, had 19 violations of its permit from the New Mexico Environment Department. Newport News Nuclear BWXT Los Alamos, also known as N3B, which is managing a 10-year cleanup of waste generated at the lab, was cited 29 times. Triad’s most notable violation was shipping 250 barrels of mostly mixed waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad without tracking them. Mixed waste contains low-level radioactive waste and other hazardous materials. Inspectors found records still listed the waste at the national lab.
Mislabeled containers should be taken seriously because they can cause incidents if the contents aren’t identified, said Scott Kovac, research and operations director for Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
Lab personnel didn’t update the shipping data because they were waiting for WIPP to acknowledge it had received the waste, lab spokesman Matt Nerzig said in an emailed statement. “There was no risk to public health or safety and the inventory is now correct,” Nerzig said, adding that shipping updates now will be done when waste leaves the lab. But a watchdog group said failing to track such a high volume of waste is an egregious error that falls in line with the lab’s long history of serious missteps.
“The fact that LANL has mischaracterized, misplaced, mis-inventoried — or whatever — 250 barrels of waste is pretty astounding,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “We see mistakes being made by a new contractor. So definitely, all of this is cause for concern.”
“If DOE and LANL continue to treat the public with disdain, it is going to be a long and difficult permitting process. All in all, this first meeting was disappointing and unproductive.” — Joni Arends, of CCNS
This week the renewal of the New Mexico Environment Department hazardous waste permit for Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) began in a very controlled public meeting at the Cities of Gold in Pojoaque. There was no presentation by the Department of Energy (DOE) or its contractor, Triad National Security, LLC, about their plans to renew the application. If the public had questions, they were instructed to write them on a half-sheet comment and question card. There was no explanation about if and how those comments and questions would be answered.
Listen to the full story:
CCNS has prepared a pre-emptive sample public comment letter you can use to express what needs to be included in LANL’s permit application, including proposals to install confined burn and detonation facilities, and coming into compliance with the federal and state hazardous waste laws and regulations dealing with tank systems (that are used to treat liquid hazardous and radioactive waste) and seismic requirements. The last surface rupture on the Pajarito Plateau fault system was 1,400 years ago – thus requiring additional LANL submittals and NMED review. LANL_Permit_Renewal_App_public_comment_120519 The current ten-year LANL permit expires in late December 2020. Under the regulations, the permit application is due to the Environment Department 180 days before the permit expires, or in late June 2020. https://www.env.nm.gov/hazardous-waste/lanl-permit/ The hazardous waste permit renewal application for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is on the same timeline. https://www.env.nm.gov/hazardous-waste/wipp-permit-page/ CCNS and others have made numerous requests to both LANL and WIPP management to submit their applications in the spring of 2020 to give additional opportunity for the public to review both. At the meeting, CCNS asked when LANL would submit its application. A LANL staff member said they could not disclose the date.
“There’s enough high-level nuclear waste awaiting disposal in the U.S. to fill a football field 65 feet (20 meters) deep. Few states want to house it within their borders.”
“The public defines ‘safe’ as zero risk…the technical community defines ‘safe’ as complying with regulatory standards.” – Robert Halstead, head of the Agency for Nuclear Projects, is currently fighting plutonium shipments to Nevada and spent nuclear fuel transfers to the proposed Yucca Mountain dump.
The plutonium core for the first atomic weapon detonated in 1945 was taken from Los Alamos National Laboratory to a test site in the New Mexico desert in the backseat of a U.S. Army sedan.
Officials put other bomb parts inside a metal container, packed it into a wooden crate and secured it in the steel bed of a truck under a tarp, the U.S. Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration says in a historical account.
Grainy black-and-white photos show special agents and armed military police accompanying the shipment nearly 75 years ago.
“Nuclear materials transportation has evolved since then,” the department posted online last year.
Today, radioactive shipments are hauled in double-walled steel containers inside specialized trailers that undergo extensive testing and are tracked by GPS and real-time apps.
But whether shipping technology has evolved enough to be deemed safe depends on whom you ask.
A ‘dirty, dirty process’
Los Alamos has a starring role in a shift to U.S. nuclear policy that’s two presidential terms in the making. Nuclear watchdog groups in the state are concerned about the United States’ evolving nuclear agenda, which will see a sharp increase in plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).
LANL recently released its $13 billion expansion proposal to accommodate increased pit production at the site. The expansion is part of a wider push across the country to ramp up the nuclear warhead manufacturing machine, according to Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group.
Plutonium pits are central to nuclear weaponry. They are the “radioactive cores of modern nuclear weapons,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. He added that the pits themselves are weapons. “It was essentially a plutonium pit that destroyed Nagasaki on August 9, 1945,”
The ramp-up is years in the making, as successive presidential administrations have struggled to address how to modernize the U.S. nuclear stockpile. But nuclear watchdog groups worry an increase in pit production at LANL would have negative repercussions for the region. While LANL has touted the proposed economic benefits of its proposal for the area, activists argue the dangers outweigh the benefits.
Documents & Resources
The agreement of the Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to address the highest risk above-ground transuranic waste currently in Technical Area 54 at LANL.
This revised Consent Order will create serious barriers to achieving cleanup, limits public participation opportunities, undermines enforceability by the Environment Department, puts the Department of Energy (DOE) in the driver’s seat, and lacks a final milestone compliance date. The 2016 Consent Order is potentially a giant step backward in achieving genuine, comprehensive cleanup at LANL.
The 2005 consent order was LANL’s agreement for “fence-to-fence” cleanup of Cold War-era legacy waste by December 2015. Issued pursuant to the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act, the Consent Order set the requirements for a comprehensive investigation of environmental contamination and provides for the identification of cleanup alternatives and the implementation of cleanup measures. (NMED, DOE, UC Regents)