NNSA: No new pits (for now)

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By Roger Snodgrass

In a formal Record of Decision (ROD) authorizing continuing operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory, federal managers have proposed only limited changes in the level of a few activities and a modest handful of new facilities projects.

The ROD, published in Friday’s Federal Register, is based on the Final Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement that was issued in May, which described a “preferred alternative,” actively supported by the laboratory and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

But the first set of choices includes few of the activities that were proposed under the preferred, or “expanded operations alternative.” Nor does it include any of the options discussed under a third scenario of reduced operations.

“NNSA has decided to continue to implement the No Action Alternative with the addition of some elements of the Expanded Operations Alternative,” the document states. “For the most part, NNSA will continue the missions conducted at LANL at current levels at this time.”

A press release from NNSA’s Los Alamos Site Office Friday called the decision paper, “the first of a series of Records of Decision” that will be based on the environmental study and process.”

The decision establishes a threshold framework for continuing operations at current levels with a few changes.

The LASO statement noted, “NNSA will not change pit production at LANL at this time; the 1999 ROD set pit production at LANL at 20 per year.”

Up to 80 of these plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons were proposed under the expanded set of options, but that was based on assumptions that have not been politically sanctioned.

The last formal environmental impact study was issued in 1999. DOE’s regulations require the department to evaluate operations under the National Environmental Protection Act every five years. An environmental analysis was begun in 2004, but scrapped shortly afterward in favor of a new more elaborate environmental impact statement that was issued in draft form and the subject of an extensive round of hearings and a 75-day comment period.

The laboratory issued a statement Friday acknowledging that the decision, “allows the Laboratory to continue performing service to the nation through our national security missions while enhancing our science capabilities.”

Among the four changes in operational levels that were authorized, was a broadening of the types and quantities of radioactive sealed sources (used in power generation, medical research and treatment and industrial tools and instruments, among other things), support for the LANL high performance computer, the Roadrunner, expanded research on health and safety research related to beryllium and authorization for retrieval and disposition of transuranic wastes.

Among the facilities projects that may be pursued under the decision are the Waste Management Facilities Transition projects related to the Consent Order; repair and replacement of cooling system components at the Plutonium Facility; and final design for a new Liquid Waste Treatment Facility and design and construction of a Zero Liquid Discharge Facility component.

In a brief set of comments distributed by e-mail after the release of the decision on Friday, Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, observed that the ROD “postpones most decisions, including decisions about plutonium warhead core (‘pit’) production” until another major environmental study, having to do with transforming and consolidating the entire nuclear weapons complex are completed.

“This ROD can be seen as a temporizing effort, pending the results of spending decisions, nuclear policy decisions and the presidential election,” Mello wrote.

In analyzing public comments, the ROD paid special attention to issues of environmental justice raised by Santa Clara pueblo, defended the appropriateness of the document’s evaluations but also offered a plan to provide special consideration to tribal concerns and issues.

The document also responded to comments about inadequacies in the laboratory’s groundwater monitoring network.

“NNSA acknowledges that past well installation practices have not produced the desired network, and will continue to install and refurbish wells until adequate information is obtained regarding groundwater conditions and contaminant transport within the aquifers in the LANL area."

With respect to future options, the document states, "These decisions do not limitor prejudice the decisions NNSA may make regarding the programmatic alternatives it is evaluating" on the larger question of consolidating and transforming the nuclear weapons complex.

The environmental statement on that subject is scheduled to be published next month.