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Home / Articles / News / Features /  Ticking Time Bomb Factory
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Safety and environmental concerns plague Los Alamos National Laboratory’s $6 billion expansion project.

Ticking Time Bomb Factory

Will any of the warning signs derail LANL’s $6 billion boondoggle?

December 21, 2011, 12:00 am

As the possible groundbreaking for construction on Los Alamos National Laboratory’s plutonium pit manufacturing facility draws nearer, the past year has seen countless threats to the controversial project. Here’s how 2011’s developments call attention to the weaknesses of the project, currently estimated to cost $5.8 billion to construct.


In January, the Buckman Direct Diversion Board—a City of Santa Fe body that guides a project to divert Rio Grande water to Santa Feans’ taps—voted to go ahead with the project, despite concerns about possible contamination from Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is upstream of the diversion point, and allegations of bias levied against the group hired to do an independent analysis of the water’s quality [news, Dec. 15, 2010: “Murky Water”]. The infusion of this water into Santa Fe taps gave residents another reason to object to construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility, which will ensure LANL creates radioactive waste for at least another 30 years.


In March, a magnitude 9 earthquake rocked the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, causing three of its reactors to melt down and release radioactivity into the air. The disaster raised the proposed CMRR’s international profile because of its placement on a geologic fault line. At public meetings, concerns about the CMRR’s seismic safety, including reports that show the seismic danger at was originally underestimated, garnered second looks. 


In June, the US House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations cut $100 million from the 2012 budget request for the CMRR, citing cost overruns and lingering questions about the design’s seismic adequacy. The committee’s report also warned against spending too much on construction of new major facilities at the expense of maintaining existing programs [news, Aug. 31: “Pit Stop”].


Also in June, the Las Conchas wildfire came within 3½ miles of Area G, the lab’s only waste dump area that is still in operation, demonstrating LANL’s vulnerability to natural disasters. The CMRR would create 95 more tons of waste, including radioactive waste, each year; the Las Conchas close call renewed questions about whether LANL’s efforts to remove radioactive waste from the hill are sufficient under current operations, let alone after the construction of a new facility. A Department of Energy report decrying problems with fire-suppression systems at LANL exacerbated concerns about the facilities’ vulnerabilities.


“[The combination of] fire and plutonium is very bad because, as plutonium burns, it gets in the air, and there’s no way of controlling where it’s going to go,” Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program at Southwest Research Information Center, says. Hancock notes that a fire was responsible for creating an environmental disaster at another defense plutonium pit manufacturing facility, the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, Colo.


In August, a final report on the impact of the CMRR shed doubts on the project’s ability to create jobs in northern New Mexico. The report found that the CMRR would create no permanent new jobs, and would create 410 temporary jobs related to construction over a nine-year period.


“In contrast, if that $6 billion was put into cleanup [of radioactive waste], it would produce 1,000 jobs right off the bat,” Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, says.

 

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