Los Alamos Study Group Responds To DOE/NNSA Announcement Of Plans For LANL Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement


Los Alamos Study Group executive director Greg Mello commented Saturday to the Los Alamos Reporter on the Department of Energy’s announcement Thursday of plans for a Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement (SWEIS) for Los Alamos National Laboratory. See https://losalamosreporter.com/2022/01/06/doe-nnsa-to-start-new-lanl-site-wide-environmental-impact-statement/

Based in Albuquerque, the Los Alamos Study Group, which was founded in 1989, is a non-profit that has worked for nuclear disarmament, environmental protection, social justice, and economic sustainability.

Mello said LASG began to press for a new SWEIS at LANL under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in early 2019. In a February 2019 memo to NNSA administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, Mello said LASG believes NNSA and DOE had already made pit production decisions in violation of NEPA. Mello also wrote to the New Mexico Environment Department in June 2020 stating that it is almost incomprehensible that a brand-new program “involving processing, transporting, storing, and disposing tons of some the most dangerous materials known to humanity — could proceed without a full environmental impact statement”.

Three years and dozens of meetings, presentations and letters later, Mello is not encouraged by NNSA’s announcement.

“There is absolutely no indication that NNSA has decided to pause any preparations for pit production, or pause any other activities, at LANL for the sake of NEPA compliance, and every indication to the contrary. So it is not clear what meaning the present announcement has. NEPA requires analysis before not after – decisions to proceed with major federal projects,” Mello said. “NEPA is now used by DOE and NNSA to obscure, rather than provide transparency, and as a tool to provide carte blanche for many possible future decisions, rather than well-defined, realistic alternatives. Big nuclear weapons programs definitely affect jurisprudence, so NNSA generally gets away with this.”

His advice is not to settle for offers to conduct a new SWEIS as long as progress continues on the plutonium pit production project.

“DOE NEPA practice is to offer project ‘scenarios’ which obscure what is actually going on while providing legal cover for new projects later. And of course, proceeding with projects during NEPA analysis is fundamentally contrary to NEPA in any case,” Mello said.

He said LASG is very concerned about the misuse of “public involvement” as a substitute for legally-required, democratic processes, not just in this case but across government.

“Much of what passes for good-faith process isn’t. The goal is often rather to use the public to legitimize decisions which have already been made,” Mello said. “Usually — almost certainly in this case — the public and other governments are being “socially engineered”, their attention directed in the desired direction, a direction devoid of agency. Usually, DOE processes are political scams. An indicator of this, in this case, is the lack of transparency about LANL’s plans, the scale of which has not been seen at LANL since the early 1950s if not before.”

He noted that LASG has filed four lawsuits under NEPA against DOE that have all been successful to one degree or another.

“From this experience and subsequent observation it is possible to confidently say: NEPA has been gutted at DOE. Whether it can realistically be rescued in any particular case is another question,” Mello said.

He said it’s important to realize that from 1996 until 2018, DOE and NNSA did not believe that LANL’s Plutonium Facility (PF-4 was a suitable place for continuous stockpile pit production.

“By 1996 statute, reaffirmed multiple times in NEPA decisions, LANL’s was an ‘interim’ capability only. In 2017, NNSA saw no engineering justification for attempting enduring production in PF-4. A new LANL facility could be adequate, but that did not stack up favorably against repurposing a new, partially-built plutonium in South Carolina in cost, risk or schedule. No ‘modular’ augmentation of PF-4 made sense to NNSA either,” Mello continued.

The whole reason LANL is being “turned inside out” for pit production is to get production going by the middle of this decade, Mello believes. He said that schedule is at least a decade, if not two decades, “early to need” for all existing stockpile systems.

“LANL’s facilities and location are just all wrong for anything more than technology development, demonstration and training,” he said.

Mello said assembling a post-decisional SWEIS will not remove the real impacts of former President Donald Trump’s “terrible decision” to graft a pit factory into LANL.

“NEPA is not supposed to be a CYA exercise. If Triad and the Biden NNSA can truly look at the difficulties they are creating at LANL with fresh eyes and find the courage to go to Congress this winter and say, ‘We must rethink this decision and also look at the environmental impacts using NEPA’, the Lab, the town, the state and the country would be better off,” Mello said.