Unknown Impact

County asks Los Alamos National Labs to assess environmental impact before expanding nuclear production

Santa Fe County wants Los Alamos National Laboratories to take stock of its impact on the environment and surrounding communities before pushing ahead with plans to expand.

On Tuesday, the Board of County Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution asking the National Nuclear Safety Administration to complete a new site-wide environmental impact statement for LANL in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act before expanding plutonium pit production.

"The public health and safety is so important," said Commissioner Anna Hansen, noting that the NEPA process is one of the only avenues for the public to weigh in on what goes on at the labs.

"We have a longstanding tradition of promoting democracy and environmental protection in impending nuclear weapons by requesting that local governments be kept fully informed about projects to facilitate large scale production of additional plutonium warheads," she said.

Yet right now, the labs' full impact on Northern New Mexico is unknown. It's been more than a decade since the last time the NNSA produced an EIS for the laboratory, and a lot has changed since then, including regional understanding of  wildfire risks and potential water contamination from the labs.

Hansen said that for residents of Santa Fe County, potential water pollution from the labs is a primary issue.

"It is extremely concerning to me that the water we take in from the Rio Grande be as clean as it could possibly be and that these hazardous chemicals and plutonium do not get into our water system," said Hansen.

Since the last EIS was completed in 2008, LANL has also had numerous safety violations and other mishaps including a 2014 incident in which the labs added kitty litter to a barrel of mislabeled radioactive waste that exploded and shut down the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad for nearly three years.

The labs' repeated failure to meet nuclear safety standards is one of the county's primary arguments for insisting the federal government complete a new EIS.

The kitty litter debacle is just one of multiple examples listed in the resolution. Most recently the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board reported the possibility that LANL workers had exposure to potentially lethal doses of radiation, according to the resolution.

These issues were also highlighted by meeting attendees during public comments.

"One real concern that our members have is a 2016 Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report that showed Los Alamos has violated nuclear industry rules for guarding against criticality incidents three times more in 2015 than the energy department's 23 other nuclear installations combined," said Teresa Seamster, the Northern New Mexico chair for the Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club, "now that is a lot of accidents, mismanagement, and safety issues, and these have continued right into 2020."

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