US lawmakers from New Mexico hold out on review of nuke plan

This undated file photo shows the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. 

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation find themselves in an awkward position as watchdogs claim the U.S. government is skirting key environmental laws by refusing to closely examine the consequences of increasing production of key plutonium components for the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

As supporters of bringing more defense-related spending to New Mexico, the Democratic lawmakers have been reticent to speak about whether there should be a more in-depth review of the plutonium core project despite their recent criticism of the Trump administration’s plans to roll back environmental oversight of other federal projects.

Federal officials have set a deadline of 2030 for increased core production, with work being split between Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. At stake are jobs and billions of dollars to revamp existing buildings or construct new factories.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nuclear arsenal, announced last week it doesn’t need to do any broad environmental reviews of the proposal. Watchdog groups say that’s a violation of law; some are calling for a nationwide review and others want a more in-depth analysis of the impact on the Los Alamos lab.

The offices of U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich told The Associated Press they would not be able to say whether they would support an expanded review without first being briefed by the U.S. Energy Department. A meeting is planned this week.

The senators said they support Los Alamos’ mission and believe the review process under the National Environmental Policy Act is important to ensure worker, community and environmental safety.

“The burden is on DOE and Los Alamos to explain their NEPA analysis and decisions to the public, and we will continue to prioritize worker safety and independent oversight of the lab.” the senators said.

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, a Democratic Senate candidate whose district includes the lab, declined to comment.

The mission of producing the cores has been based at Los Alamos for years, but none has been made since 2011 as the lab has been dogged by a string of safety lapses and concerns about a lack of accountability.

The consequences of building up production capabilities at Los Alamos are immense and a thorough review should be done, said Greg Mello of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group.

He said the government isn’t going to “become conscious of the contradictions and interactions” of the numerous programs that would be involved unless it’s forced to prepare an environmental impact statement.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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