Bombing New Mexico: Nuclear Bomb Facility Proposed

by Amy Williams
From Voices of the Earth, the newsletter of
Southwest Research and Information Center
August 2003

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy (DOE), has proposed two new facilities for Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The first, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building Replacement Project (CMRR), would serve to replace a facility by a similar name that currently performs advanced chemistry and research on radioactive elements. The work of the CMRR would support the work performed at the second proposed facility, the Modern Pit Facility (MPF), which would produce plutonium pits. The pit is a grapefruit-sized sphere of plutonium surrounded by conventional explosives that serves as the trigger for modern thermonuclear weapons.

Many critical issues were raised at the public meetings that were held recently to address these facilities. For example, these facilities combined would increase LANL's water usage by 142%, which would further compromise New Mexico's dwindling water supply. Also, many members of the public are concerned that the work performed by these facilities would undermine the already threatened Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is the first most crucial step toward global nuclear disarmament.

Almost entirely overlooked, however, is the issue of the gross amounts of waste that these facilities would contribute to a state already overburdened with waste generated by 60 years of DOE activities in New Mexico. Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety has been working with New Mexico Waste Watch (NMWW), a growing network of organizations from communities impacted by landfills, hazardous waste facilities and incinerators around New Mexico, to call attention to waste generation, storage and disposal operations around the state. Of particular concern to NMWW of late is the CMRR and MPF because, combined, these facilities would produce 999,009 cubic meters of radioactive, hazardous and solid waste in their 50-year life spans. That is assuming that the MPF produced 450 pits per year, which is the maximum capacity analyzed by the draft Environmental Impact Statement. That is enough waste to fill approximately 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Where would all of this waste go? The CMRR and MPF would produce 58,832 cubic meters of transuranic waste. The MPF alone would constitute as much as a 1,200% increase of transuranic waste generation at LANL. . Transuranic waste is plutonium-contaminated waste that is currently disposed of at WIPP. However, the waste generated by the facilities would exceed the disposal capacity designated for LANL at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) by 47,476 cubic meters. There are already 40,000 55-gallon drums of transuranic waste stored in fabric tents at LANL's Technical Area-54, or Area G, awaiting transportation to WIPP.

Furthermore, WIPP is only expected to operate until 2035. The MPF is expected to begin its 50-year operation in 2020. This means that WIPP would be unavailable for MPF waste for the majority of the MPF's operations. NNSA accounts for this 35-year discrepancy by saying that, because permitting and siting of the WIPP facility has already happened once, it would be easy enough to build a new WIPP facility to accommodate future waste generation.

The CMRR and MPF would also generate 344,508 cubic meters of low-level waste in their 50-year life spans. This constitutes more than a 900% increase of low-level waste production at LANL. Low-level waste generated by LANL is disposed of and stored at Area G. The CMRR and MPF facilities would exceed Area G's remaining waste capacity by 321,040 cubic meters. Furthermore, Area G is slated for closure by 2009, although NNSA anticipates that they will instead increase Area G's size in order to accommodate another 50 to 100 years of waste storage and disposal.

Low-level waste presents more of a difficulty at some of the other sites being considered for the MPF, including Nevada Test Site, the Pantex Plant in Texas, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and WIPP. Neither the Pantex Plant nor WIPP currently have any capacity for disposing of low-level waste. If picked, those facilities would either have to build a low-level waste disposal area, or develop plans to ship the low-level waste to an approved repository.

The CMRR and MPF facilities would also create mixed transuranic and mixed low-level radioactive waste, for which there is currently no disposal facility. In the Environmental Impact Statements for the proposed facilities, NNSA simply says that this waste will be stored at an unnamed and currently non-existent commercial or defense-related waste facility.

NNSA also does not account for production of radioactive liquid waste at the CMRR and MPF, saying only that it would be appropriately treated at Technical Area-50, the Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility. However, that facility is more than 50 years old and its safety and reliability has received criticism for many years. This is disconcerting considering that the facility discharges 20 million liters of treated wastewater into Mortandad Canyon annually. The effluent soaks into the canyon bottoms and may be discharging into springs that feed into the Rio Grande.

Not to be overlooked is the solid waste that would be generated by the facilities. The facilities would create 560,000 cubic meters of solid waste, which NNSA says will be disposed of at an appropriate landfill. However, the Los Alamos County landfill, which currently manages LANL and Los Alamos County's solid waste, is scheduled to close in 2004 and siting and permitting for a new facility is just beginning. Communities surrounding LANL, such as Taos and Ojo Caliente, may be challenged to manage LANL's excessive solid waste.

The CMRR, as its name implies, would replace the existing CMR Building. At the time that it was built, more than 50 years ago, the CMR was the largest building in New Mexico, spanning 51,097 square meters. The CMRR project would require demolishing the existing CMR building. NNSA estimates that a full 4,620 square meters of the CMR building is contaminated with radioactivity, as well as approximately three miles of stainless steel pipe, 40,134 square meters of wall materials, and approximately 22,250 meters of asbestos pipe insulation that could pose a health threat during decontamination procedures and would require appropriate disposal. Furthermore, it is estimated that 100% of the CMR's basement is contaminated.

In its draft CMRR Environmental Impact Statement, NNSA only says that all waste generated by the demolition would be sent to an appropriate disposal facility. NNSA estimates that there will be 12,200 cubic meters of radioactive waste generated by the disposition of the CMR building, although that number seems low considering that approximately 2/3 of the building is contaminated.

If these facilities were built, the familiar sight of TRUPACT containers carrying deadly radioactive waste lumbering across New Mexico's highways would remain a part of the scenery for decades to come. The sight of fabric domes on mesa tops offering scant protection to thousands of barrels of nuclear waste would remain a blight to Northern New Mexico's otherwise pristine landscape for all of the foreseeable future. Already, Los Alamos waste has been shipped to Wagon Mound and the Southwestern Regional Landfill in the South Valley of Albuquerque. New waste facilities may be constructed near Roswell and Ojo Caliente.

However, even if the CMRR and MPF were not located at LANL, LANL would produce 483,635,655 cubic meters of radioactive, hazardous and solid waste in the next 50 years. That is enough waste to fill 241,818 Olympic-sized swimming pools. I ask NNSA and DOE: must New Mexico continue drowning in your waste?

Sources: Draft Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on Stockpile Stewardship and Management for a Modern Pit Facility (MPF EIS). May 2003
Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Building (CMRR EIS). May 2003
Site-wide Environmental Impact Statement for Continued Operations of the LANL (LANL SWEIS). 1999.