Nuclear groups challenge pit program expansion

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Three environmental and nuclear safety watchdog groups demanded last week the National Nuclear Security Administration temporarily halt its plutonium pit production expansion plans.

Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Savannah River Site Watch and Tri-Valley CAREs wrote a letter to NNSA Undersecretary and Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty Wednesday, saying the NNSA was in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Earlier this year, the NNSA announced plans that the Los Alamos National Laboratory would produce 30 plutonium pits for nuclear weapons each year and the Savannah River Site produce 50 pits a year by 2030.

“NEPA clearly requires that proposed major federal actions be subject to public environmental review,” a statement in the letter from the three organizations said. “Further, NNSA has a legal duty to apply NEPA early in the process.

Moreover, until NNSA issues a formal Record of Decision at the end of a NEPA process, it maynot take actions that will

‘Limit the choice of reasonable alternatives’ or ‘prejudice the ultimate decision on the program’ before it directs ‘irreversible and irretrievable resources’ toward that end.”

Hagerty did not respond to the letter, but DOE Spokeswoman Lindsey Geisler said the pit manufacturing plan is going forward as expected.

“The pit production mission will be carried out in accordance with all applicable environmental and regulatory requirements,” Geisler said in a written statement.

Nuclear Watch Executive Director Jay Coghlan said the NNSA has to open up the pit production plan for public comment through the National Environmental Policy Act process.  

“In my view, the requirements of the law are quite clear. Also, I would also cite four NEPA processes in which NNSA explicitly recognized it’s legal obligations…those requirements still stand.”

Tom Clements, Coghlan’s counterpart with Savannah River Site Watch, claimed the NNSA started the process 18 years ago, but never followed through.

The last time the NNSA did the programmatic environmental impact statement process for a modern pit facility as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act was about 18 years ago, according to Clements.

“They did not take that document to formal conclusion or a record of decision, they just basically terminated it,” Clements said. “They need to begin that programmatic environmental impact statement process again to determine the need for expanded pit production.”

The NNSA is preparing a facility in South Carolina to manufacture 50 pits a year.

Clements said he and his organization haven’t seen any sign that NNSA is going to run a NEPA analysis of the Savannah River Site part of the plan either.

“They have been saying they want to start pit production pretty soon,” Clements said. “But, there is no environmental document to proceed to that step.”

The groups are looking for the NNSA to respond to their letter within 30 days.

The nuclear triggers the NNSA wants to manufacture are roughly the dimensions of a softball. They have plutonium cores. Up until May, when the NNSA announced the plan, Los Alamos National Laboratory was the only facility in the NNSA’s nuclear enterprise that was capable of making the cores.