LANL NEPA process begins while public skepticism abounds

By KAY MATTHEWS

During its 26 years of publication La Jicarita has covered scores of issues that require National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis before a federal project can be implemented: timber sales; grazing allotments; ski area expansions; mining permits; and, of course, nuclear weapons development at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). NEPA was enacted 52 years ago “To declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality.”

During those 53 years NEPA has no doubt accomplished a credible amount of “harmony between man and his environment” while at the same time created a bitter morass of contention—legal, political, and emotional—that I doubt was anticipated on its January 1, 1970 release. We’ve covered that, too, on scores of issues where the validity of the how the act has been used was justifiably questioned.

I suppose it should have been obvious that a tool designed to allow the public to have input on federal projects and decisions would be contentious. But instead of allowing public participation in the drafting of many of the projects that require a NEPA analysis, public comment is restricted to the scoping, draft environmental analyses, and draft environmental impact statements (required for larger projects). While it’s the only tool we have—essentially after the fact participation—it’s often marginalized, obfuscated, and simply ignored by the agencies implementing the project or abused by stakeholders with special interests.

Now, the NEPA process raises its contentious head again as LANL prepares for its new mission: the production of nuclear warhead pits. And all the questions and arguments and concerns raised over the efficacy of the process are staring us squarely in the face. Time is of the essence, but the process that’s gotten us to where we are today has been convoluted, to say the least.

Since 2020 our New Mexico anti-nuclear organizations and peace activists have been pressuring the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which governs nuclear laboratories under the Department of Energy (DOE), to issue a full a blown environmental impact study before LANL starts producing plutonium pits, the cores of nuclear bombs (LANL is directed to produce 30 pits per year; the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, 50 pits per year).

On March 10 of 2020 Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS) and Taoseños for Peaceful and Sustainable Futures delivered over 700 petitions to the New Mexico congressional delegation. They demanded that DOE and NNSA conduct a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for planned plutonium pit production at LANL and Savannah River Site, followed by a new Site-Wide Environmental Impact Study (SWEIS) for LANL before any expanded plutonium pit production and associated infrastructure projects began.

On the same day, NNSA issued a Draft Supplement Environmental Analysis of the 2008 previous LANL SWEIS that it claimed was sufficient in light of the planned plutonium pit development, despite all the changes that have taken place at LANL since 2008. To add insult to injury, NNSA rejected Senators Udall and Heinrich’s request to extend the deadline for public comment on this Draft Supplemental Analysis. The senators had asked for a 45- day delay on behalf of 120 people and organizations because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then, on September 3, NNSA announced it would not prepare a new SWEIS for LANL. Nuclear Watch New Mexico responded with this statement: “With this decision NNSA is slamming the door shut on public accountability while it rams through expanded plutonium ‘pit’ bomb core production at the Lab. NNSA is relying upon outdated studies from 2008 to justify pit production. Since that time the agency has wasted billions of taxpayers’ dollars, another catastrophic wildfire threatened the Lab, serious deep groundwater contamination was discovered and LANL has had chronic nuclear safety incidences with plutonium that it can’t seem to fix.”

In the La Jicarita article where I discuss these developments, I also reference the fiscal impact study conducted by the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research that revealed the Lab’s economic impact on the surrounding communities has been negative, which Carol Miller discusses in her Captiol Hill Citizen article attached below. Carol’s piece describes in detail how the New Mexico congressional delegation has always defended LANL’s nuclear weapon’s work as the state’s “economic engine” that has so obviously been a sham and a lie.

In September of 2021 La Jicarita  posted Los Alamos Study Group’s (LASG) warning about the impending production of the nuclear war head pits and Greg Mello’s editorial detailing the enormous costs involved: “Start-up costs for the two sites now are in the range of $32 billion to $39 billion through 2033, far more than anyone imagined, with $27 billion to $34 billion still to go, more than half at LANL. LANL pits will cost north of $50 million apiece, at least tripling the cost of any new warheads, again assuming production goes perfectly. It won’t. Even assuming perfect reliability, LANL by itself can’t make enough pits.”

Then, out of the blue, in January of 2022 Los Alamos Reporter editor Maire O’Neill reported: “During Thursday evening’s New Mexico Environment Department’s virtual Consent Order Update Meeting, a Department of Energy Environmental Management representative may have let the cat out of the bag when he said the DOE/NNSA has just received funding to start a new Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement for Los Alamos National Laboratory” (reprinted with permission in La Jicarita).

Finally, on August 19, NNSA announced it will prepare a new LANL SWEIS. It’s scheduled two scoping hearings on the internet on September 13 and 14 (see below for links). But none of the groups that have pushed so hard for this to actually happen are holding their breath that it will force LANL to scale back its pit production mission. In a press release from Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Jay Coghlan points out that the Notice of Intent To Prepare a Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement for Continued Operation of the Los Alamos National Laboratory doesn’t even mention expanded plutonium pit production.

In his Los Alamos Study Group Bulletin a couple of days ago, Greg Mello went much further in his castigation of the NEPA process: “Unless this process is fixed (see below), don’t bother taking part. It is a complete red herring. Your comments will mean nothing and accomplish nothing. If you care about nuclear weapons policy, or nuclear disarmament, or stopping the U.S. war against Russia and the looming U.S. war with China, or climate collapse, or any other important political objective, your time is better spent working on that.

This ‘scoping’ process is designed to seduce you into thinking it is a legitimate process that will result in a more environmentally-friendly nuclear weapons laboratory, or a better and more complete environmental cleanup, or that the federal government is behaving in a responsible, legal manner. Above all it aims to solidify those beliefs at a group-emotional level.

It’s designed to legitimate nuclear weapons. The concept of an ‘environmental impact statement’ for a new nuclear weapons factory, especially at this point in world history, is absurd. And as Voltaire said, ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’ Any use of nuclear weapons would be a war crime, so these devices aren’t really ‘weapons’ at all, as even Harry Truman belatedly figured out. They put the ‘terror’ in ‘deterrence.’ The terror comes from ‘collateral damage,’ i.e. mass civilian death, which is known, accepted, and planned.”

For those who wish to comment, here are the links to the two scoping meetings:

Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022 2-4 p.m. Mountain Time
Access by Internet: https://tinyurl.com/LANLSCOPING1

Access by Telephone: (719) 359-4580
Webinar ID: 854 9276 5831

Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022,5-7 p.m. Mountain Time
Access by Internet at: https://tinyurl.com/LANLSCOPING2

Access by Telephone: (719) 359-4580
Webinar ID: 897 9221 6008

I’ll give the final words to Carol Miller in her Capitol Hill Citizen aericle.

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4 comments

  1. Thank you, Kay, this is very important!

    We would like to reprint a portion of this in our OCtober issue, probably not so much the NEPA part in the beginning. Do we have permission to cut it down, or would you like to do it?

    In Appreciation, Lou

    *Ms. Lou McCall, *Editor- Questa Del Rio News PO Box 1072 Questa, NM 87556 575.586.2058 or 575.312.3174 https://questanews.com Like us on Facebook/questadelrionews

    OUR MISSION: To Inform, Inspire, Connect And Unite The Communities of Northern Taos County.

  2. Hi Kay, this article was so good and I wanted to include Carol Miller’s article. There was no way we could cut it down for print and also there was the time factor, I am sorry I missed getting it out before the scoping meetings. SO, I shared it on social media instead, I hope that is okay, let me know asap, if that is NOT good. Great article, thanks!

    In Appreciation, Lou

    *Ms. Lou McCall, *Editor- Questa Del Rio News PO Box 1072 Questa, NM 87556 575.586.2058 or 575.312.3174 https://questanews.com Like us on Facebook/questadelrionews

    OUR MISSION: To Inform, Inspire, Connect And Unite The Communities of Northern Taos County.

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