Alameda County — A local antinuclear group is taking part in a lawsuit against the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), as that federal agency moves ahead with plans to increase its capacity for making the plutonium cores of nuclear weapons, commonly called “pits.”
The local antinuclear group is Tri Valley CAREs, for Citizens Against a Radioactive Environment. It has joined activist organizations from New Mexico and South Carolina in suing the NNSA.
The lawsuit alleges that NNSA is failing to live up to an obligation imposed by the National Environmental Protection Act to carry out a full nationwide review of the enlarged pit manufacturing program.
Instead, the suit alleges, NNSA has improperly conducted only location-specific studies of the two sites where pit manufacturing will occur, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
The big federal agency should carry out a nationwide study of all the activities that might be affected by its expanded program, from the transportation of radioactive waste to altered operations at the manufacturing sites and other NNSA facilities.
The National Environmental Protection Act “requires NNSA to treat expanded pit production as the national program it is, with impacts in addition to those at the two production sites,” wrote Tri-Valley CAREs leader in an email.
“These include waste disposition, transportation of plutonium crisscrossing the country, and potential environmental and health effects at seven other sites that NNSA acknowledges are part of its pit plans, but did not analyze.”
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) is one of those seven sites and in fact “illustrates why a more detailed review is needed,” she wrote.
On the scientific side, she pointed out, LLNL carries out research that sheds light on how and why plutonium changes over time.
More immediately, she said, LLNL is also working to replace a 37-year-old thermonuclear warhead with a design called the W87-1 Mod. This effort project is a near-term factor in the push for expanded pit production capacity, Kelly believes.
“Thus, LLNL is a key, unexamined, site” motivating the lawsuit against NNSA, she said.
Other parties in the lawsuit include Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Savannah River Site Watch.
The activist groups say they have contacted the U.S. Department of Energy and NNSA “on more than six occasions since 2019 over the legal requirement for a broad, nationwide programmatic environmental impact statement” for the pit production program.
NNSA responded that it “has no plans to revisit its review of pit production,” after which the groups concluded that the federal agency’s analysis effort has been “piecemeal … arbitrary and capricious and violates … the National Environmental Policy Act, according to the lawsuit.
Under the expanded NNSA program, Los Alamos is expected to increase pit manufacturing capacity from today’s 10 to 20 units per year to 30 or more, and the Savannah River Plant is expected to develop the capacity to make 50 or more per year.
If accomplished, this program would meet Congress’s 2018 mandate that NNSA be able to manufacture at least 80 units per year. Congress demanded that capability by 2030, but the newly nominated head of NNSA, Jill Hruby, formerly of Sandia, recently estimated that the program might be late.
Los Alamos should be ready ahead of schedule, she told the Senate, but Savannah River’s Plutonium Processing Facility might not be up to speed until late 2035.
During the Cold War, pits were manufactured in large numbers at Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado. The plant was closed for safety reasons in 1989, after which a limited pit manufacturing capability was created at Los Alamos.
Pit manufacturing is extremely demanding, requiring exceptional precision as well as extraordinary care in storing and processing large quantities of plutonium. In addition to being radioactive, plutonium is highly reactive chemically. It is toxic to humans as well as having the potential for generating huge bursts of nuclear energy that make it an essential component of nuclear weapons.
Creating a large-scale pit manufacturing capability after the closure of Rocky Flats has been slow and controversial. For one thing, today’s environmental and safety regulations are more stringent and difficult to meet than they were when Rocky Flats was created at the height of the Cold War.
For another, in the view of many analysts, there is less sense of urgency, as the U.S. has been downsizing its nuclear arsenal.
On the other hand, advocates of expanded capacity point out that all U.S. nuclear weapons have aged past their original design lifetimes, and nuclear components including plutonium degrade with the years.
They argue that the U.S. needs to remain highly capable in a crucial national defense sector that is only supported by NNSA.
Pit production lacks the broad, national base of support that, for example, the electronics and aerospace industries have, they point out.
NNSA must keep pit production capability modern and strong, especially in light of energetic Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons programs and aggressive foreign policies, the advocates note.