New nuclear weapons plan faces scrutiny

DOE wanted to quadruple plutonium pit production. For now, activists have stopped them

From SRS Watch, Tri-Valley CAREs, Nuclear Watch New Mexico and the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition

In a win for public participation and environmental protection, the United States District Court of South Carolina denied the Department of Energy’s motion to dismiss a 2021 legal action filed by multiple citizen groups. 

The suit was prompted by the agency’s failure to take the “hard look” required by the National Environmental Policy Act at its plans to more than quadruple the production of plutonium pits for new nuclear weapons and split their production between the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site. 

In her ruling, Judge Mary Geiger Lewis thoroughly rejected the defendants’ arguments that the plaintiffs lacked standing, saying it was “not a close call”.

“We were able to defeat yet another attempt to use standing as a weapon to keep members of the public out of the government’s decision-making process,” said Leslie Lenhardt, Senior Managing Attorney at the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP). 

A section of the sprawling Savannah River Site where plutonium pits have never been made. (Photo: DOE)

To date, the Department of Energy (DOE) has refused to fully examine the environmental and safety impacts of their cross-country plan, which would create massive quantities of dangerous radioactive materials, put hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on the line, risk a new nuclear arms race, and violate the nation’s foundational environmental law. 

The Savannah River Site has never produced plutonium pits, the explosive cores of all U.S.nuclear weapons, and currently stores 11.5 metric tons of plutonium, which poses a daunting management and disposal challenge. Pit production will only increase its plutonium burden, along with more waste that needs to be treated, stored and disposed of.

“The ruling is a significant loss for the DOE in its efforts to dodge its legal obligations under NEPA,” said Tom Clements, Director of SRS Watch. “We will push forward in court to make sure that the DOE conducts the mandated environmental analysis of impacts of plutonium pit production at all involved DOE sites, including sites at which plutonium waste would be disposed.”

Despite outdated analyses failing to account for significant changes in circumstances, the U.S. government has ignored the repeated calls from the public, including the plaintiffs specifically, to conduct the legally required “hard look” at this major shift in policy that will only exacerbate the already documented waste of taxpayers’ money.

“It’s critical that the public understands that no future pit production is to maintain the safety and reliability of the existing nuclear weapons stockpile,” said Jay Coghlan, Executive Director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “Instead, it is for speculative new designs that can’t be tested because of the international testing moratorium. Or worse yet, it could prompt the U.S. to resume testing, which would have severe proliferation consequences. This is the kind of needed public discussion that the Department of Energy seeks to shut down while spending enormous sums of  taxpayers’ money on expanding nuclear weapons production.”

The plutonium pit facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Photo: LANL)

SCELP filed the lawsuit on behalf of Savannah River Site Watch, Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Tri-Valley CAREs and the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition in June of 2021 after the DOE’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) concluded it was unnecessary to conduct a broad, nationwide review of this two-site strategy. Instead, the agency is relying on a supplemental analysis of an outdated Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) completed more than a decade ago, along with a separate review done for SRS alone.

“We are thrilled that the Court ruled in our favor and that this landmark environmental case can now proceed toward a final decision,” said Marylia Kelley, Executive Director of the Livermore-based Tri-Valley CAREs. “What’s at stake in our litigation is nothing less than the question of whether the federal government will be allowed to run roughshod over affected communities like mine all across the country. 

“We believe the Court will ultimately agree with Plaintiff groups that the National Nuclear Security Administration must produce a nationwide Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement and hold public hearings at all of the locations that will be actively involved in these dangerous plutonium bomb core activities, including Livermore, CA. The analysis of risks must precede implementation of the project in order to forestall serious environmental degradation and potential loss of life, “Kelley concluded.

Headline graphic by User:Fastfission, redrawn by User:Ausis/Wikimedia Commons.

The opinions expressed in articles by outside contributors and published on the Beyond Nuclear International website, are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Beyond Nuclear. However, we try to offer a broad variety of viewpoints and perspectives as part of our mission “to educate and activate the public about the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons and the need to abandon both to safeguard our future”.

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