Groups call for meetings as US lab preps for weapons work

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Several groups are asking state and federal officials to hold semi-annual public meetings as Los Alamos National Laboratory prepares to resume and ramp up production of key components for the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

The groups outlined their request in a recent letter sent to the U.S. Energy Department and the New Mexico Environment Department.

Federal officials have set a deadline of 2030 for increased production of the plutonium cores used to trigger nuclear weapons.

The work will be split between Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. At stake are jobs and billions of federal dollars to upgrade buildings or construct new factories.

The request for the public meetings came as New Mexico environmental officials are preparing a draft permit that would govern emissions from the lab's manufacturing facilities.

The groups pointed to a 2005 settlement involving a dispute over an air permit related to the expansion of nuclear weapons work at Los Alamos. That agreement included public participation provisions as well as specific language that called for the lab to apply for a permit revision before starting construction on a proposed nuclear facility.

The public meetings were halted in 2012 when the Obama administration cancelled the nuclear facility project.

The groups want the twice yearly meetings to resume this fall and want the lab to update a website related to the project.

They're also asking for state regulators to review a decision by the Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration to increase the amount of plutonium allowed at the proposed nuclear complex.

The groups that signed the letter are Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Tewa Women United, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, Peace Action, the Loretto Community, and the Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group.

Members of New Mexico's Democratic congressional delegation have supported the plutonium work, saying it will bring more funding to the region.

But watchdog groups have been critical over the decades, citing repeated missed deadlines, overspent budgets and concerns about the generation of new radioactive waste.

The New Mexico Environment Department submitted comments in May to the federal government regarding expanded production of the plutonium triggers. State officials said the Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration must account for the cumulative effects of failing to prioritize the cleanup of contamination from decades of work at Los Alamos.

State officials also noted that an analysis released by the government in March provides few details about funding for environmental remediation of Cold War-era waste.

The state officials questioned the government's spending on cleanup efforts and said the Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration need to provide a detailed accounting of what has been appropriated and spent on environment management at the lab since 2008.

The state environment department said in a statement Thursday that it is looking forward to hearing how the Energy Department plans to address the issues raise by state environmental regulators.

The state often works with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates radionuclide emissions from the site, and other non-governmental groups to implement alternatives to limit human health and environmental impacts.

Regulators will have a better understanding of the state's role in the discussions after the federal government finalizes a draft environmental review on expanded production, the environment department said.