Environmental decision backs science complex

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By Roger Snodgrass

A project to construct and operate a new 400,000-square-foot science complex to consolidate offices and laboratories located in outmoded and temporary structures at Los Alamos National Laboratory has been given a preliminary stamp of approval in an environmental decision document.


In general, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s environmental description continues to emphasize the “no-action” alternative at Los Alamos National Laboratory, defined as “essentially a continuation of current operations.”


The decision is contained in a second Record of Decision (ROD) growing out of a “Final Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement (SWEIS) for Continued Operation of Los Alamos National Laboratory.”


“You can issue one record or separate,” said George Rael, who is the assistant manager environmental operations for NNSA. “When we issued the site-wide, we elected to look at it in parts. The first one came out in September, recognizing that we may issue another one or two.”


The second ROD published in the Federal Register Friday has once again selected “no action,” as opposed to reducing or expanding operations, with a few specified exceptions.


“We looked at the activities we need to get under way,” Rael said. “For example, with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars we’re hoping to get here soon, we will be doing some decommissioning and dismantlement work at Technical Area 21.”


The SWEIS, which was published in May 2008, has been in the works since 2004. Normally, the documents are supposed to be reviewed every five years. The document identified the “Expanded Operation Alternative” as NNSA preference, but the two RODs issued so far have held close to earlier decisions based on a 1999 study that is now 10 years old.


That study established production capability for plutonium pits, the triggers for nuclear weapons, at Los Alamos at 20. The new decision explicitly continues authorization at that level of production, but short of the 80 pits envisioned under an expanded option that was the focus of attention of much public comment.


“In response to concerns raised by several of the commenters that proceeding with an increase in plutonium pit production at this time would be premature, NNSA agrees that making decisions at this time on future plutonium pit production levels is premature,” the document states.” That decision would be postponed until “after completion of the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review,” which is due by the end of this year.


Exceptions to the “no action” prescription include refurbishing the Plutonium Facility Complex; operating a new Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility; operating a new zero liquid discharge facility; and building the science and engineering complex.


The work outlined in the statement for the Plutonium Facility includes projects described as environmentally friendly, including replacement of the “chiller,” a water cooling and ventilation system, “which would result in fewer emissions of ozone depleting substances; implementation of a Steam System subproject, which would reduce emissions of criteria pollutants,” and other projects designed to improve the safety of the complex.


These are only potential expansions, as they are dependent on Congressional decisions, which are currently under discussion for FY 2010.


Another exception enables future upgrades to the Metropolis Center for Modeling and Simulation to a level expressed in terms of maximum consumption of power use (15 megawatts) and a maximum potable water use (51 million gallons a year).


The authorization is based on the role of the center in supporting the continued certification of the nuclear weapons stockpile without conducting underground tests.


Another exception to the “no action” clears the way environmentally for the effort to build a “science complex” west of the Research Park. The ROD calls it a “Science and Engineering Complex” but the description corresponds to a science complex project analyzed in the SWEIS that would be located at Technical Area 62.


“This allows us to begin that process,” said Rael. “It allows us to notify the folks that we’re ready.”


Some environmental assessments related to LANL have been expressed through the federal government’s conclusions about consolidation of the nuclear weapons complex. Previous evaluations, for example, mean that special nuclear materials and plutonium work will be gathered from other sites at Los Alamos, while tritium operations will go to the Savannah River Site and four environmental test facilities at LANL will be transferred to Sandia National Laboratories.