Sunday, May 29, 2011

CMRR-NF SEIS Hearings in New Mexico

Public hearings were recently held by DOE/NNSA, in which comments were solicited from the general public on the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) of April, 2011, regarding proposed construction of the ~$6 billion facility for plutonium R&D at LANL. These hearings were a part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, mandated by the U. S. Congress, and were held on the evenings of May 23-26, 2011 in Albuquerque, Los Alamos, Española, and Santa Fe, NM.

The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) discussed is being designed to replace a similar, but said to be outmoded building (CMR) constructed in the 1950's. If constructed as planned, the CMRR-NF will enable DOE/NNSA/LANL's continuation of the performance of nuclear weapons R&D at Los Alamos for approximately the next 50 years; in particular, R&D activities related to plutonium chemistry and metallurgy. These activities would have applications to stockpile stewardship, as presently understood; i.e., to the production of new plutonium triggers to replace weapons that have been damaged or destroyed during active surveillance.

However, the CMRR-NF is also a keystone of DOE/NNSA's plans for the continuation of the U. S. nuclear weapons program for the next 50 years. An essential part of these plans is the centralization of all  plutonium related activities at LANL, with the collection and storage of weapons grade plutonium in underground vaults at CMRR-NF. The CMRR-NF could also support the large-scale production of plutonium pits, or triggers, of new and untested designs if DOE/NNSA should ever convince a future U. S. Congress to revive the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program.

It is interesting to recall that plutonium pits, or triggers, are really only essential for the detonation of miniaturized thermonuclear weapons which, although small in dimension, can be designed to be weapons of almost limitless explosive power. A single very powerful thermonuclear weapon exploded over a major metropolis could result in the deaths of tens of millions of people. Thus, in our current political environment, in which the role of nuclear weapons in national policy is being down-played, and in which the contemplation of the use of any weapon of mass destruction is being stigmatized, thermonuclear weapons would seem to be of little value.

On the other hand, weapons of more limited power, such as atomic weapons, can be fashioned from uranium alone. The atomic weapon dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was just such a weapon, and its design was so simple that it did not even need to be tested before use. As is well known, however, the design of the plutonium based device dropped on Nagasaki did require testing before use, since its design was fraught with difficult engineering challenges. Thus, if there were to be any future for nuclear weapons, based say on their presumed deterrence value, then uranium weapons might easily suffice. In fact, initial concepts of the RRW were for just such a uranium based atomic weapon. However, in this, advocates for the "more is better" approach seem to have prevailed.

I attended the last 3 of the public meetings held to encourage public comment on construction of the proposed CMRR-NF. The emphasis in comments made by the public was different in each of these 3 meetings.

The Los Alamos meeting was rather small: 7 comments were pro-LANL and pro-construction; 3 comments were anti-LANL. The pro-LANL comments asserted the importance of the proposed construction to the local economy, as well as the importance of LANL to the local economy, generally. A few patriotic themes were also struck by the pro-LANL speakers.

The Española meeting was larger: there were 4 pro-LANL comments, 2 of which were by the same individuals who had spoken at the Los Alamos meeting; and there were 34 anti-LANL comments. The anti-LANL commenters mostly expressed outrage at the environmental contamination which they believed LANL operations were causing and which, they implied, activities at the CMRR-NF would worsen.

The Santa Fe meeting was equally large: there were 2 pro-LANL comments, but by the same 2 individuals who had spoken at the previous meetings; again there were 34 anti-LANL comments, of which only 4 were by people who had spoken in Española. The anti-LANL sentiments were now largely centered on moral concerns; i.e., the immorality of continuing with the U. S. nuclear weapons enterprise.

Thus, it appears that the local community is much more motivated to express opposition to the proposed CMRR-NF construction project than it is willing to express support for the smathering of new jobs that the project will produce; viz., over all, 65 citizens opposed the project while 8 expressed support.

The period for written public comment on construction of the CMRR-NF building extends to June 28, 2011, and citizens may email DOE/NNSA at (Attn: Mr. John Tegtmeier, CMRR–NF SEIS Document Manager) expressing their views on this controversial matter. Copies of such communications should be forwarded to the offices of Rep. Ben Ray Lujan and to Senators Bingaman and Udall.

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