Council’s Focus On Pit Production As A County Federal Priority Questioned


Los Alamos County Council has approved a seven-year contract for legal services with Kutak Rock, LLP for legal services up to $350,000. Kutak Rock has worked with the County for the past two decades, providing institutional knowledge on land transfers from the Department of Energy and other federal issues that have confronted the County.

An agenda item when the contract was approved noted that Kutak Rock has also served the County by making contacts with appropriate officials on County issues and arranging for representatives to have meetings with officials involved in issues important to the County and the region when representatives visit Washington, DC. One of the firm’s partners, Seth Kirshenberg, is also the executive director of the Energy Communities Alliance, an organization of local governments including Los Alamos County that are adjacent to DOE facilities and national laboratories.

Kutak Rock assisted Council’s Federal Committee, Council Chair Randy Ryti, Vice Chair James Robinson and Councilor Sara Scott with developing the Federal Priorities which were approved at the March 9 meeting.

Scott said she felt like first and foremost the document voiced support for Congressional action on COVID initiatives that would help individuals, businesses, vaccination and other recovery efforts.

“We put that front and center. It’s not just important for our community, it’s important for our state and for the nation. I think again there’s strong language regarding environmental cleanup and I think that’s important as we move forward,” she said.

Councilor Denise Derkacs asked for wording to be changed to add the word “science” so that the document would read, “fully-funded and request funding for national security and science at LANL including for the plutonium science and pit production mission”.  She requested that “science” be added in other relevant places also.

Councilor David Izraelevitz  asked for the inclusion of a reference to continued funding of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities.

“In the scheme of things, it’s a small allocation of $100,000 and pales in comparison with the $200 million that we get for cleanup but I wanted to highlight that that is also an important part of the relationship between DOE and the public,” he said.  

Councilor Sean Williams asked why the decision was made to specifically and explicitly advocate for plutonium pit production. Chair Ryti said he thought it was one of the things the Council has consistently advocated for over the years and that it is one of the core missions of the Laboratory.

Councilor Scott responded that overall the first point is “fully fund and support all missions”.

“The reason that this pops up is it’s kind of a growth area for the Lab. Additionally there has been discussion about where the Center of Excellence excellence might be and I think this is about showing support for that being at LANL specifically in terms of some of the discussions that have been had. And then in final bullet it says, ‘Support current and emerging critical national security missions at LANL through programmatic and infrastructure investments’.  We want to fund all of them. We want to acknowledge the importance of LANL in the pit production mission and growth area but we also want to make sure and highlight our support for future missions and new areas where the administration may be interested in expanding national security missions at LANL and others, so looking ahead I think is that last point,” she said.

Izraelevitz pointed that the support for pit production “predates Councilor Williams’s tenure”.

“In 2018 we had a Council resolution… supporting retention and expansion of plutonium pit production at LANL. So I guess this is just a reminder that Council has a formal position on this item. A legislative priority is consistent with prior Council direction,” he said.

Williams said he didn’t feel like that addressed the question.

“On the one hand consistency is not a defense of continuing to do something. I want to be clear. I’m not saying we should take this out, I’m wondering why it’s in there. It’s sort of an odd thing I feel to be specifically called out because of course the Lab has a lot of missions, so why specifically advocate for this one,” Williams said. “I guess what sort of makes this jump out to me is that it feels a bit presumptuous. It feels a little bit of telling Triad what we want them to do – telling the Laboratory what we think is important about what they do, and that’s just an odd thing to do. That’s probably why I asked the question. Why are we advocating for a specific task for the Laboratory?”

Izraelevitz asked if he could address the question as representative to the Energy Communities Alliance.

“This has not been quite settled but there was a question about where pit production should occur when the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication mission at Savannah River closed, so the question was whether all of the production would be moved out of Los Alamos or whether it would happen at all at Savannah River,” he said. “So there is a legislative and political question about that, that is like any of the other missions of the Laboratory – the space mission is not front and center to the legislative concerns, biology, basic science, things like that. That’s what I kind of saw from the legislative priorities is that we know that there’s an issue there that’s come up repeatedly and we wanted to emphasize the community’s support for having that national security mission center of excellence at the Lab. So in my mind I see where that is consistent with the political legislative atmosphere that we’re in.”

Jody Benson of the Sierra Club Pajarito-Los Alamos Group was the only person to submit public comment during the meeting.

“As you know, we environmental groups have been concerned with this issue of focusing on pit production here at LANL for a long time and I would like to join Councilor Williams in saying why are we as a county in this request focusing primarily on pit production. Pit production is something that LANL was tasked to do back under (former Lab director) Sieg Hecker but he was able to defer it because he knew it wasn’t good for the community and he knew it wasn’t good for Northern New Mexico and he pointed out what happened to Rocky Flats in this regard,” Benson said.

She said there is so much more that the County and LANL can do besides pit production.

“New nuclear weapons are not what we need right now, especially since we can as we’ve seen in this previous administration, destroy the nation with pennies on the dollar from a Russian troll farm. Why are we investing as a nation $13.5 billion into pits? When I bring this up with LANL employees, they laugh and say, ‘Ah, we’re not going to do pits here, we’ve never been able to do pits. We haven’t cleaned up from our previous pit mess. We don’t have the capabilities. Let’s just take the money’. I don’t think, as Councilor Williams pointed out, this should be the focus of this paper. We should be requesting that LANL do good science – not just weapons – and science and security. Let’s not call out pit production specifically, let’s call out good science,” Benson said.