Nuclear Watch New Mexico, along with other watchdog groups, has announced a lawsuit against the Biden administration over its expanded production of plutonium cores for the U.S. nuclear weapons “modernization” plans. There has been inadequate environmental review by federal agencies, who have failed to detail potential impacts of the projects around communities in New Mexico and South Carolina.
The lawsuit was filed against the Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration demanding the federal agency that oversees U.S. nuclear research and bombmaking must “take a legally required ‘hard look’ at impacts on local communities and possible alternatives before expanding manufacturing of the plutonium cores used to trigger nuclear weapons.”
The push from U.S. officials to “modernize” the country’s nuclear arsenal cites only general global security concerns that do not justify the science and brand new, untested technology that will be necessary to the task. citing global security concerns. Although “most of the plutonium cores currently in the stockpile date back to the 1970s and 1980s,” scientific experts estimate that plutonium pits will last 100 years or more., and on warhead type, the best estimate of minimum pit life is 85–100 years.minimum.
Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico and the Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina face enormous (and, frankly, unrealistic) deadlines to produce a massive number of plutonium cores in coming years – 50 or more cores at South Carolina and 30 or more at Los Alamos National Lab. The Savannah River Site location now has estimated costs up to $11.1 billion, with a completion date ranging from 2032 to 2035. The U.S. doesn’t need the new plutonium cores with the taxpayer bearing the burden for the expense of lagging deadlines and bloated budgets.
“The watchdog groups said Tuesday that the agency took a piecemeal approach to decide on locating the production at Los Alamos and the Savannah River Site, where nearby communities are already underrepresented and underserved.”
Tom Clements of Savannah River Site Watch said the South Carolina location was picked for political reasons following the failure of a facility designed to convert weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel. As the Savannah River Site has never served as a storage or production site for the pits in its history, establishing pit construction there would be “a daunting technical challenge that has not been properly reviewed,” Clements said.
With very real, current threats the U.S. is facing right now, we don’t need another Rocky Flats situation in New Mexico or South Carolina where a $7 billion, yearslong cleanup is required after the facilities fail due to leaks, fires and environmental violations, doing irreparable damage to the earth and placing communities there in unequivocal peril.
Public interest groups will hold a press conference for a major announcement of a forthcoming legal action as the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration forge ahead with plans to drastically expand production of plutonium pits, the cores of nuclear weapons, at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. The legal action follows previous unanswered requests from the groups to DOE and NNSA as seen in correspondence in February and April.
Will That Change in Future Years?
Santa Fe, NM – In a classic move that discouraged media coverage, the Department of Energy’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) released its long delayed FY 2022 Congressional Budget Request around 7:30 pm EST Friday, May 28, at the very beginning of the long Memorial Day weekend.
Nuclear Watch New Mexico strongly opposed the 25% FY 2021 increase that the Trump Administration bequeathed to NNSA’s nuclear weapons programs. That massive increase was originally sold in testimony to Congress as essential to maintaining the nuclear deterrence but later revealed as necessary to cover NNSA cost overruns and blown schedules.[i]
“In addition, the Government Accountability Office GAO noted in a report published last September that the NNSA has been unable to plan for and complete major construction projects on time and, over the past two decades, Los Alamos has twice had to suspend laboratory-wide operations after the discovery of significant safety issues.”
The Energy Department’s cost to build the infrastructure to produce new plutonium cores for U.S. nuclear warheads could be as high as $18 billion, according to a department estimate and yet-to-be-released internal estimates detailed to Arms Control Today by a congressional source.
A technician at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico manipulates plutonium as part of the U.S. Stockpile Stewardship Program in 2005. Current plans call for expanding the production of plutonium pits at both Los Alamos and at the Savannah RIver Site in South Carolina. (Photo: U.S. Energy Department)
The updated price tag is nearly two and half times larger than earlier projections and is likely to raise fresh doubts about the affordability of the department’s aggressive plans to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure.
The updated estimates are not reflected in the budget plan for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) that the Trump administration bequeathed to the Biden administration. That means future NNSA weapons program budget requests will require significant increases beyond current plans just to accommodate the growth in the projected cost of pit production.
“Recommended approach to producing 30 plutonium pits per year identified”
CD-1 approval marks the completion of the project definition phase and the conceptual design as part of DOE’s Order 413.3B process for the acquisition of capital assets. NNSA identified its recommended approach to produce at least 30 plutonium pits per year to meet national security needs.
The CD-1 cost estimate for LAP4 is $2.7-$3.9 billion, with an overall project completion range of 2027-2028. Critical equipment is scheduled to be installed in time to achieve the 30 pits per year production capacity in 2026. The CD-1 cost estimate and project completion date ranges are preliminary estimates that will be refined as the project conceptual design is matured to the 90% design level required to achieve CD-2 (approval of the performance baseline). Consistent with industry best practices and DOE policy, NNSA will set the performance cost and schedule baseline at CD-2, which is expected in 2023.
NNSA leadership and LANL will continue to review this project to improve the fidelity of the current price estimate and schedule.
A Pentagon official backed out of a plutonium pit production briefing in Columbia this week because the Biden administration is “engaged in a full review of the program,” according to Rick Lee, the chairman of the S.C. Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council.
Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico: “It’s important to note that no future pit production is to maintain the safety and reliability of the existing nuclear weapons stockpile. Instead, it is for speculative new nuclear weapons designs that can’t be tested because of the international testing moratorium, or perhaps worse yet may prompt the U.S. back into testing, after which surely other nations would follow.”
FEBRUARY 11, 2021
Public interest organizations sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) requesting that it address calls for a rigorous environmental review of plans to expand production of nuclear bomb cores at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina.
The non-profit groups—Nuclear Watch New Mexico, SRS Watch and Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment—have previously submitted a number of formal comments and information related to the environmental and public health risks associated with a significant expansion of plutonium “pit” production at the two DOE sites.
Savannah River Site Watch https://srswatch.org/
Columbia, South Carolina USA For Immediate Release December 14, 2020
The powerful chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Representation Adam Smith, has raised great doubt about the U.S. Department of Energy’s ability to pull off the project at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina to produce plutonium “pits,” or cores, for nuclear warheads.
In an online presentation on December 11 with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Rep. Smith (D-WA) expressed deep concern in the ability of the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to pull off the project to convert the partially finished plutonium fuel (MOX) plant, halted in 2017, into the proposed Plutonium Bomb Plant (PBP) at SRS. The event featured Rep. Smith talking about nuclear weapons matters coming before Congress in 2021. The transcript of the event was released late in the afternoon of December 11.
NukeWatch Past Work Product
March 10, 2020 Press Release
Santa Fe, NM – Today the Department of Energy’s semi-autonomous nuclear weapons agency, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), announced that it will not complete a new site-wide environmental impact statement for the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The last site-wide environmental impact statement was in 2008.
April 3, 2020 Press Release
Today, in the middle of the growing coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Department of Energy ignored the real national crisis and irresponsibly shifted its focus to planning for nuclear war, revealing plans to construct a Plutonium Bomb Plant (PBP) at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina.
April 21, 2020 Press Release
Santa Fe, NM – Today, on behalf of more than 120 groups and individuals, Nuclear Watch New Mexico sent a letter to New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich. It asks them to act upon their own words and demand that the public comment period be extended for plutonium “pit” bomb core production that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is fast tracking during the coronavirus epidemic. As sitting members of the Senate Appropriations and Armed Services Committees, Udall and Heinrich are in strong positions to make that demand of NNSA.
May 6, 2020 Press Release
Santa Fe, NM – Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), has rejected a request by New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich to extend the public comment period on expanded plutonium “pit” bomb core production because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast, even in normal times NNSA and its parent Department of Energy routinely ask other government agencies for major time extensions when it comes to cleanup and independent oversight.
June 24, 2020 Press Release
Today, legal counsel for the public interest groups Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, Savannah River Site Watch and the Natural Resources Defense Council took a significant step toward a potential legal challenge to the U.S. Department of Energy’s plans for expanded production of plutonium cores, or “pits,” for new-design nuclear weapons.
September 1, 2020 Press Release
Santa Fe, NM – The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced today that it will not prepare a new site-wide environmental impact statement for the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).
With this decision NNSA is slamming the door shut on public accountability while it rams through expanded plutonium “pit” bomb core production at the Lab. NNSA is relying upon outdated studies from 2008 to justify pit production. Since that time the agency has wasted billions of taxpayers’ dollars, another catastrophic wildfire threatened the Lab, serious deep groundwater contamination was discovered and LANL has had chronic nuclear safety incidences with plutonium that it can’t seem to fix.
November 5, 2020 Press Release
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today issued a formal decision that it will pursue a massive Plutonium Bomb Plant (PBP) at the DOE’s Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina, in order to produce plutonium “pits,” or cores, for nuclear warheads. The provocative decision, which adds fuel to concerns about a new nuclear arms race with Russia and China, drew immediate opposition from public interest groups near DOE sites in South Carolina, New Mexico and California.
June 10, 2019 Press Release
In a victory for transparency and legal compliance by the government, the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) today published a “Notice of Intent” in the Federal Register to complete environmental reviews on its controversial proposal to expand plutonium “pit” production for new and refurbished nuclear weapons.
June 4, 2019 Press Release
On behalf of three public interest organizations - Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment and Savannah River Site Watch – attorneys for the law firm of Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks and the Natural Resources Defense Council recently sent a 16-page letter to Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The detailed letter warns the nuclear agency to not proceed with aggressive plans to expand plutonium pit production without first meeting its legal requirements for timely public review and comment under the National Environmental Policy Act.
May 31, 2019 Press Release
Last Wednesday, facility operations personnel entered a service room and noticed a leak emanating from a valve on the radioactive liquid waste (RLW) system. Upon subsequent visual inspection by a radiological control technician, RLUOB engineers believe that this valve, and 6 similar valves, may be constructed of carbon steel. The RLW system handles radioactive liquid waste streams from chemistry operations that include nitric and hydrochloric acids—carbon steel valves would be incompatible with these solutions. The suspect valves are also in contact with stainless steel piping, which would create another corrosion mechanism. RLUOB management plans to drain the affected piping sections and develop a work package to replace all of the suspect valves. They will also confirm the valve materials and if shown to be incorrect, investigate the cause of this failure in the design, procurement, and installation processes. The valves were installed in 2013 as part of a modification to add straining and sampling capabilities that were not in the included in the original design. [Please note that DNFSB reports are posted a few weeks later than dated.]
This immediately raises two crucial issues: 1) the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) plans for expanded plutonium pit production; and 2) the current attempt by the Department of Energy to restrict Safety Board access to its nuclear weapons facilities.
November 16, 2018 Fact Sheet
Plutonium pits are the radioactive cores or “triggers” of nuclear weapons. Their production has always been a chokepoint of resumed industrial-scale U.S. nuclear weapons production ever since a 1989 FBI raid investigating environmental crimes shut down the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver. In 1997 the mission of plutonium pit production was officially transferred to its birthplace, the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in northern New Mexico, but officially capped at not more than 20 pits per year. However, in 2015 Congress required expanded pit production by 2030 whether or not the existing nuclear weapons stockpile actually needs it. This will support new military capabilities for nuclear weapons and their potential use.
Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Savannah River Site Watch, and Tri-Valley CAREs sent a letter of demand to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to inform the government that its plan to quadruple the production rate of plutonium bomb cores is out of compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
NNSA’s premature plan to quadruple the production rate of plutonium bomb cores (“pits”), the heart of all US nuclear weapons, is out of compliance with requisite environmental law, the groups argue, as NNSA has failed to undertake a legally-mandated programmatic review and hold required public hearings.