US pushes ahead with nuclear plans despite watchdog concerns

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FILE – This undated file aerial photo shows the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. The federal agency that oversees U.S. nuclear research and bomb-making has signed off on the first planning and design phase for a multibillion-dollar project to manufacture key components for the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The plan calls for making at least 30 plutonium cores per year at Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico. (The Albuquerque Journal via AP, File)

The Biden administration appears to be picking up where former President Donald Trump left off as the federal agency that oversees U.S. nuclear research and bomb-making has approved the first design phase for a multibillion-dollar project to manufacture key components for the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

The National Nuclear Security Administration in a decision announced Wednesday stated that planning and construction could cost upwards of $4 billion initially.

The agency did not articulate what exactly that money would be spent on nor does it include the cost of other preparations that would be needed for Los Alamos National Laboratory to begin producing 30 plutonium cores per year.

The push to resume production of the nuclear triggers has spanned multiple presidential administrations, with supporters arguing that the U.S. needs to ensure the stability and reliance of its arsenal given growing global security concerns. The nuclear agency also has said most of the cores in the stockpile date back to the 1970s and 1980s.

Democratic members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have supported production at Los Alamos because of the billions of dollars in federal funding and thousands of jobs that are at stake.

But watchdog groups have been sounding alarms over the potential for more security and safety lapses at the northern New Mexico lab and the potential for environmental contamination.

Another concern is the nuclear waste that would be generated by the work.

Watchdog groups have said that the cost estimate outlined by the agency in its decision is about double the projections made just last year.

Greg Mello with the Los Alamos Study Group said the ballooning budget and uncertainty over whether the lab can meet the federal government’s mandated production schedule “throw further doubt on the wisdom of proceeding with industrial pit production” at Los Alamos.

“LANL’s facilities are simply too old and inherently unsafe, its location too impractical,” he said. “Even with a much smaller stockpile, LANL could not undertake this mission successfully.”

Some groups have threatened to sue the U.S. Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration, saying a more comprehensive review should have been done on the plans to produce plutonium cores Los Alamos and at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. They argue that nearby communities already have been saddled with legacy contamination from previous defense work.

Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico called the federal government’s plans “unnecessary and provocative,” saying more production will result in more waste and help to fuel a new arms race.

The nuclear agency in a statement said it expects to set cost and schedule baselines in 2023 as part of the ongoing process. It also plans to continue reviewing the project “to improve the fidelity” of price and timeline estimates.

Lab Director Thom Mason is scheduled Thursday evening to host a community meeting to talk about the lab’s work — which also includes projects related to space exploration, the coronavirus pandemic, water supplies in the arid West and wildfires.

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