NNSA releases draft assessment of LANL plutonium factory complex

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By Tris DeRoma

The National Nuclear Security Administration released a draft environmental assessment for one part of its proposed Plutonium Factory Complex at Los Alamos National Laboratory.


The heads of two environmental and nuclear safety organizations say the assessment shows the plutonium pit program will remain at Los Alamos, and be expanded.

The NNSA is looking for comments and questions through March 26 on it’s plans to convert the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Radiological Laboratory/Utility/Office Building into a facility capable of handling and testing plutonium slated to be used in the lab’s plutonium pit manufacturing facility at Tech Area 55. 

The move comes after recent changes related to the health risks of handling plutonium were revised. To reflect the change, the building would be made into a material-at-risk-limited Hazard Category 3 nuclear facility.

Los Alamos Study Group Executive Director Greg Mello said this is a sign that LANL’s plutonium pit manufacturing program is here to stay in Los Alamos.

Speaking as the executive director of an environmental and nuclear safety group, he does not see this as a good thing.

“We don’t think there ought to be expansion. We’re weary of the general effort to cram more pit production into LANL,” Mello said. “Especially in the clear absence of the need to make pits. We don’t think it’s going to succeed, actually.” 

Mello said the main building where much of the pit production is done, known as PF-4, was never meant to be a pit production facility. 

“We think, Los Alamos, as an institution, doesn’t have a production identity,” Mello said. “This is a big production mission that would really change Los Alamos and the attempt to do this at Los Alamos have not been very successful.” 

Mello pointed to plans to increase the amount of plutonium that would be at LANL as a result of the upgrade. 

“Many of us heard that at least a decade, that RLUOB (Radiological Laboratory/Utility/Office Building) would never have more than 8 grams in plutonium, thus it was not worthy of our attention. Now, we come to find out that it will have up to 400 grams of plutonium in it,” Mello said. 

“And that’s just the material at risk. There could be quite a lot more plutonium in it. We don’t really know what the upper limit is.” 

Another nuclear watchdog organization, Nuclear Watch was also concerned with the amount that would be allowed in the new hazard category 3 nuclear facility. 

 “NNSA needs to get its NEPA (National Environmental Police Act) house in order. Instead of this lessor environmental assessment to increase the amount of plutonium in the Rad Lab, there should instead be programmatic review of all aspects of expanded plutonium pit production, including the inevitable cost overruns, nuclear safety problems, and contamination,” Nuclear Watch Director Jay Coghlan said.