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N.M.’s delegation fights to keep LANL’s plutonium pit plan on track

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South Carolina judge’s injunction with MOX facility may not affect LANL

By Tris DeRoma

A federal judge’s June 7 decision to side with South Carolina in blocking the Department of Energy’s plans for the Savannah River Site should not affect the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s own plutonium pit manufacturing plans, congressional officials said Tuesday.

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In May, the National Nuclear Security Administration announced a plan to divide plutonium pit manufacturing between the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The plan called for LANL to manufacture 30 plutonium pits per year by 2025 and the Savannah River Site to manufacture 50 pits per year by 2030, adding 80 pits to the nation’s nuclear stockpile each year.

The plan included the shutdown and retooling of the Savannah River Site’s MOX facility, a facility that was being built to transform plutonium into reactor fuel.

The plan was unpopular with New Mexico’s northern New Mexico congressional delegation, prompting the delegation to immediately take steps to ensure LANL’s continued role in plutonium pit production.

“Los Alamos National Lab remains a cornerstone of our nation’s nuclear weapons program. In May, the New Mexico delegation came together with an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to ensure that Los Alamos will always be the Plutonium Center of Excellence in the United States,” Congressman Steve Pearce said Tuesday.

“Currently, Los Alamos is the only national lab licensed to produce plutonium pits. Responsible for 30 pits a year under the latest DOE decision, LANL will continue to play a central role in plutonium pit production for decades to come,” Pearce said. “I will continue to work with the Department of Energy to ensure Los Alamos and New Mexico are ready to assist with any additional need the Department may have.”

Sen. Tom Udall predicted South Carolina’s legal fight with the DOE, saying the South Carolina part of the plan seems flawed and troubled.

“It’s obvious that there are going to be serious roadblocks and delays to the Department of Energy’s plan to shift some plutonium work to a new facility in South Carolina, and to ship new types of nuclear waste from South Carolina to New Mexico. And that’s why there’s bipartisan skepticism about DOE’s proposal,” Udall said. “The court injunction is one more piece of evidence that DOE’s plan to build a redundant facility risks time, money, and our national security and modernization goals.”

South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) who’s battled the shutdown in Congress, was pleased with the judge’s decision last week.

“Having the federal court stop the Department of Energy (DOE) from terminating the MOX program is great news for South Carolina. It came about as the result of outstanding advocacy by Attorney General Alan Wilson and his terrific legal team. He was a real champion – standing up for South Carolina interests – in battling an out of control DOE,” Graham said. “I very much appreciate his strong advocacy and leadership to stop DOE from terminating the MOX program in such a haphazard fashion. This ruling is a big win for Savannah River Site, the people of South Carolina, and the Rule of Law.”

On May 25, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson filed an injunction to stop the DOE’s plans. On June 7, a federal judge in South Carolina sided with the state’s request.

“We are very pleased with the judge’s ruling today,” Wilson said on June 7. “The court’s decision is based upon the rule of law and common sense. This is a victory for the people of South Carolina and the safety of all South Carolinians.”

Wilson also said the halt of construction on MOX would be an economic development blow to the state. Wilson said in the injunction that the DOE’s plans would “result in decreased tax revenue stemming from the termination of the MOX Project.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) has called for an independent study of the DOE’s decision.

“DOE’s own estimates suggest standing up a second pit production mission will double the cost of modernizing this element of our nuclear deterrent, but as the courts are suggesting the plan is likely to involve even more flaws and inevitable delays,” Heinrich’s press secretary, Vanessa Valdivia said in a statement. “That is why Senator Heinrich has included language in the Defense Authorization Act requiring an independent review of DOE’s analysis. We must ensure a data-driven decision, not a political outcome that the explanations are trying to catch up with.”

The injunction also quoted testimony from the Nuclear Regularatory Commission’s findings that “‘continued storage would result in higher annual impacts’ of public radiation exposure than implementation of the MOX Project.”
Heinrich is expecting an answer to his request by July 1.

“In light of the specific concerns raised by the Chairman of the NWC, the committee directs the Administrator of the NNSA, no later than July 1, 2018, to enter into an arrangement with a federally-funded research and development center (FFRDC) to conduct an independent review and assessment of the soundness and validity of the estimated construction and life-cycle costs of each of the alternatives analyzed in NNSA’s April 2018 engineering assessment report on plutonium pit production,” Heinrich’s Defense Authorization Act provision said.

Heinrich would like to see the report delivered to the NNSA and Congress by October.