Contact: Jay Coghlan, Nuclear Watch NM, 505.989.7342, c. 505.920.7118, email@example.com
Santa Fe, NM - In less than 24 hours the Las Conchas wildfire has burned 43,000 acres of forest and has raced 12 miles to the southwestern boundary of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) where a number of sensitive tritium facilities are located. In the year 2000 the Cerro Grande Fire took nearly two weeks to burn ~48,000 acres in the same general vicinity of the east side of the Jemez Mountains, including ~5,000 acres within LANL boundaries. At that time, the Lab and Los Alamos County underwent a hurried mandatory evacuation, with only essential personnel left behind to guard sensitive Lab facilities. Because of the emergency routine monitoring of daily radioactive emissions came to an abrupt halt, arguably precisely when they were most needed.
Ironically public comments are due by the end of Tuesday June 28 on the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) - Nuclear Facility, a huge plutonium facility that will be the keystone to an expanded plutonium pit production complex at Los Alamos. The Nuclear Facility will store up to six metric tons of “special nuclear materials” (re: mostly plutonium), and will have up to 300 kilograms of plutonium in process at any given time (enough for ~50 nuclear weapons). It is generally accepted that several tens of micrograms of respirable plutonium-239 in the lung will dramatically increase the risk of lung cancer (1 kilogram = 1 billion micrograms). The primary purpose of the Nuclear Facility is to provide materials characterization of and analytical chemistry on “special nuclear materials” so that production capability can be expanded from the currently sanctioned level of 20 plutonium pits per year to 80.
Given prolonged drought and the related deteriorating health of New Mexican forests, expanded plutonium pit production at LANL could become increasingly risky. Nevertheless, the CMRR Project as a whole is slated to consume 16 million gallons of water per year for arguably unnecessary nuclear weapons production. Despite tough economic times and cuts to domestic programs, estimated construction costs for this new nuclear weapons facility have exploded nearly ten-fold from $660 million in 2004 to nearly $6 billion today (plus a second ~$6 billion nuclear weapons facility is being planned for in Tennessee as well).
The Los Alamos Lab is surrounded by distressed Ponderosa forests to the north, south and west that can propagate catastrophic crown fires. The likely effects of global climate change make the long-term prospects increasingly unfavorable. Potential increasingly severe wildfire effects could handicap northern New Mexico’s ability to adequately meet emergency needs during wildfire season, especially when they involve nuclear facilities. These growing wildfire threats are in addition to existing seismic risks that are now understood to be far more serious than previously believed just a few years ago.
The CMRR-SEIS considers the threat of a Lab site-wide fire, but primarily only one that is seismically induced or that begins within the Nuclear Facility itself. It’s inexcusable that the threat of wildfire is not comprehensively considered, including the Lab’s ability to respond in the event of mass evacuations and the loss of the power grid. In a 1999 draft Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement the Los Alamos Lab omitted consideration of the wildfire threat, which public comment force it to include in the final document. When the real thing broke out less than a year later in the Cerro Grande Fire the Lab could read its analysis like a playbook and make better-informed decisions.
Jay Coghlan, Nuclear Watch Director, commented, “We need to begin questioning whether expanded nuclear weapons production at Los Alamos is feasible in a possibly long-term drought and climate warming punctuated with catastrophic forest fires. More broadly, as we face increasing budget and resource constraints, we need to decide whether our money and water go into expanded nuclear weapons production, or do they go into repairing schools and infrastructure for the common good of society.”
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Nuclear Watch New Mexico encourages submittal of public comments on the CMRR-NF SEIS to NEPALASO@doeal.gov by June 28. NNSA says it will accept comments “to the extent practicable” beyond that date. It is currently unknown whether the comment deadline will be extended because of the fire.
Nuclear Watch New Mexico has suggested sample comments here
Ready to e-mail comments are also available here