Trump administration neuters nuclear safety board

The Trump administration has quietly taken steps that may inhibit independent oversight of its most high-risk nuclear facilities, including some buildings at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a Department of Energy document shows. An order published on the department’s website in mid-May outlines new limits on the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board — including preventing the board from accessing sensitive information, imposing additional legal hurdles on board staff, and mandating that Energy Department officials speak “with one voice” when communicating with the board. The board has, by statute, operated independently and has been provided largely unfettered access to the nation’s nuclear weapons complexes in order to assess accidents or safety concerns that could pose a grave risk to workers and the public. The main exception has been access to the nuclear weapons themselves. For many years, the board asked the Department of Energy to provide annual reviews of how well facilities handled nuclear materials vulnerable to a runaway chain reaction — and required federal officials to brief the board on the findings.

NM Environment Review: Draft state water plan, Gila meetings, LANL transition and more

One of the biggest environment stories this week is the release of an updated New Mexico State Water Plan. Susan Montoya Bryan covered that for the Associated Press, noting a few of the plan’s recommendations, including:
New Mexico’s supply of groundwater should be reserved for periods of drought, communities should have sharing agreements in place when supplies are short and alternatives such as desalination should be explored regardless of the cost. She interviewed Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat who has worked on water issues for years. Wirth noted that the state hasn’t spent enough money on water planning in recent years and that “the plan has become more a reaction to the evolving conditions.”

NM Political Report reached out to the public information officer for the state’s two water agencies, the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission to interview State Engineer Tom Blaine or other state officials about the plan and its implementation. We received no response.

The government’s new contractor to run Los Alamos includes the same manager it effectively fired for safety problems

Despite a lengthy record of safety violations, the University of California will continue its 75-year legacy of running Los Alamos National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration announced Friday. A management partnership that includes the university, research and development nonprofit Battelle Memorial Institute and Texas A&M University, the alma mater of Energy Secretary Rick Perry, will be paid $2.5 billion annually to run Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb. They’re calling their partnership Triad National Security LLC. The contract could be worth upward of $25 billion over the next decade, with hundreds of millions of dollars more in performance-based bonus fees. Six other corporations will join the team in support roles.

LANL to build part of next-gen nuclear weapons

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. – The National Nuclear Security Administration announced Thursday that New Mexico and South Carolina will share in the development of next generation nuclear weapons with expanded plutonium pit production. The “pit” is the core that triggers a nuclear warhead. The Trump administration wants to dramatically increase annual pit production, from 30 to 80. The NNSA says a troubled and not-yet-completed nuclear facility in South Carolina will be re-purposed to make 50 pits a year, while Los Alamos will make 30. Nuclear watchdog groups are alarmed by the ramp-up.

Key sites proposed for nuclear bomb production are plagued by safety problems

The Department of Energy is scheduled to decide within days where plutonium parts for the next generation of nuclear weapons are to be made, but recent internal government reports indicate serious and persistent safety issues plague both of the two candidate sites. An announcement by the Trump administration about the location is expected by May 11, in preparation for the ramped-up production of nuclear warheads called for by the Defense Department’s recent review of America’s nuclear weapons policy. This story originally appeared at the Center for Public Integrity. Some experts are worried about the safety records of either choice: Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where plutonium parts have historically been assembled, and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where other nuclear materials for America’s bombs have been made since in the 1950s. Recent internal government reports obtained by the Center for Public Integrity have warned that workers at these plants have been handling nuclear materials sloppily, or have failed to monitor safety issues aggressively.

Injured nuclear workers finally had support. The Trump administration has mothballed it.

Nearly three years ago, President Barack Obama responded to long-standing concerns that workers exposed to toxic chemicals at the country’s nuclear weapons labs were not receiving proper compensation. Obama created an advisory board to be composed of scientists, doctors and worker advocates. Their recommendations have led to significant changes, including the repeal of a rule that made it more difficult for workers who’d been injured in the last two decades to get compensation. President Donald Trump and his administration have taken a different approach: His Labor Department has let nearly all of the board member’s terms expire — and so far hasn’t nominated new ones. “For two years our board put a lot of brain power and cutting-edge expertise into developing recommendations,” said Ken Silver, an occupational health professor at Eastern Tennessee State University, who until last month was a board member.

Federal watchdog identifies new workplace safety problems at Los Alamos Lab

Los Alamos National Laboratory has failed to keep track of a toxic metal used in nuclear weapons production, potentially exposing workers to serious health consequences, a federal watchdog has found. The New Mexico lab’s failure to adequately track beryllium — small amounts of which can cause lung disease and cancer — violates federal regulations put in place to prevent worker overexposure, according to a report last week from the Department of Energy’s inspector general. The report is the latest example of serious workplace safety violations that have occurred at Los Alamos — which gave birth to the atomic bomb during World War II — including radioactive contamination and other injuries to workers. In October, for example, an independent federal safety board said the lab was ill equipped to respond to emergencies and found recurring flaws in emergency preparedness dating back to 2011. Soon after, the Department of Energy launched an investigation following a “near-miss” incident in which a worker responded to an alarm and entered an oxygen-deprived room, which could have resulted in asphyxiation.

Legislature sends governor bill imposing tax on nonprofit lab contractor

Gov. Susana Martinez will have to decide whether to sign a bill designed to prevent the state government, as well as local governments in Northern New Mexico, from losing tax revenue if a nonprofit university takes over management of Los Alamos National Laboratory later this year. That possibility is real, as two Texas universities have submitted bids for the contract. “We stand to lose about $30 million in gross receipts revenue to the state should a nonprofit contractor receive the [operations contract] at the national laboratory in Los Alamos,” Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, told the House of Representatives late Tuesday night before it voted 48-19 in favor of the measure, Senate Bill 17. Garcia Richard’s number is consistent with a fiscal impact report by the Legislative Finance Committee, which estimates the state’s gross receipts tax losses at $25 million to $30 million if a nonprofit is chosen to run the lab. Both the University of Texas System Board of Regents and Texas A&M submitted formal bids on the lab management contract in December.

NM Environment Review: Copper Flat mine, Dunn’s demand, Los Alamos fee and more

Earlier this month, we wrote about a proposed copper mine near Hillsboro. In 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management released a draft Environmental Impact Statement for how the New Mexico Copper Corporation’s  proposed open pit mine, mill, waste rock pile, stockpile and other facilities might affect things like local wildlife, water supplies and vegetation. Many local residents and downstream farmers as well as New Mexico’s two U.S. senators pointed out problems with the analysis. At that time, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission also said that the BLM didn’t adequately consider the project’s impacts on New Mexico’s ability to meet its Rio Grande water delivery requirements to Texas. (A big deal since New Mexico is currently being sued by Texas in the U.S. Supreme Court over those water deliveries.)

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GOP chair of nuclear safety agency secretly urges Trump to abolish it

The chairman of a panel charged with protecting workers at nuclear weapons facilities as well as nearby communities has told the White House he favors downsizing or abolishing the group, despite recent radiation and workplace safety problems that injured or endangered people at the sites it helps oversee. Republican appointee Sean Sullivan, a former Navy submarine officer, told the director of the Office of Management and Budget in a private letter that closing or shrinking the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board he chairs is consistent with President Trump’s ambition to cut the size of the federal workforce, according to a copy of Sullivan’s letter. It was written in June and obtained recently by the Center for Public Integrity. The five-member Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, chartered by Congress, has helped persuade the federal government to impose tighter safety rules and regulations at most of the eight nuclear weapons sites — employing more than 40,000 workers — where nuclear weapons and their parts are produced or stored. Nonetheless, the nuclear weapons complex in recent years has experienced alarming problems, including the mishandling of plutonium, a radioactive explosive; the mis-shipment of hazardous materials, including nuclear explosive materials;  and the contamination of work areas and scientists by radioactive particles — shortcomings detailed in a recent Center for Public Integrity investigation. Sullivan’s position is consistent with the longstanding preferences of the large private contractors that produce and maintain the country’s nuclear arms, most of which also contribute heavily to congressional election campaigns and spend sizable sums lobbying Washington.