LOS ALAMOS — Los Alamos began as an “instant city,” springing from the Pajarito Plateau in 1943 at the dawn of the Atomic Age. More than 8,000 people flocked here to work for Los Alamos National Laboratory and related industries during the last years of World War II. Now the city may be on the brink of another boom as the federal government moves forward with what could be the most expensive warhead modernization program in U.S. history. Under the proposed plan, LANL will become home to an industrial-scale plant for manufacturing the radioactive cores of nuclear weapons — hollow spheres of plutonium that act as triggers for nuclear explosions. The ripple effects are already being felt.
Roads are planned to be widened to accommodate 2,500 extra workers.
Hydrogen will be a key energy source in meeting the state’s goals of net zero by 2050 and at least 45 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030, according to New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney. Kenney spoke to NM Political Report after his agency, as well as the Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department and the Economic Development Department, signed a memorandum of understanding with Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories with the stated purpose to “facilitate the development of sound science, advance technologies and inform national/state policies that could enable a path to zero carbon hydrogen.”
The national labs are no strangers to hydrogen. John Sarrao, deputy director for science, technology, and engineering at Los Alamos, said the lab has been working on hydrogen for about 40 years and has developed technology that is currently being deployed in pilot projects. Chris LaFleur, an engineer at Sandia, said the lab’s work looking at hydrogen as a clean energy alternative dates back more than 15 years and one of the areas that the lab has been focusing on is storage materials. She said the lab’s hydrogen expertise is part of its core mission.
LaFleur said, in terms of research into storage, Sandia has been looking at storing hydrogen molecules “within the latticework of other materials.” She called this solid storage, as compared to what is currently more common—storing pressurized hydrogen in a tank. While the MOU addresses storage, LaFleur said the MOU’s focus is primarily on large-scale storage.
Transportation of weapons-grade plutonium to and from Los Alamos National Laboratory puts New Mexicans at risk, according to panelists who presented to the interim Legislative Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Committee on Friday. Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hansen said the panel presentation came in response to the federal fiscal year 2022 budget, which includes surplus plutonium disposition. There are current plans to move weapons-grade plutonium from Pantex in Texas to LANL, where it will be turned into a powdered plutonium oxide and then transported to South Carolina. In South Carolina, it will go through more processing before being sent back to New Mexico to be stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad. The entire process requires transporting this plutonium about 3,300 miles across a dozen states using trucks.
The state’s public health order prompted by COVID-19 has stopped some monitoring on whether and how much Los Alamos National Laboratory is releasing radioactive materials, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals into the surrounding air and water. The Department of Energy Oversight Bureau with the New Mexico Environment Department tests air, water, vegetation, and wildlife for signs of legacy waste near LANL, but COVID-19 restrictions stopped that sample collection beginning March 13. The Bureau of Hazardous Waste monitors use, storage, and movement of radioactive and hazardous waste from the lab, including the project slowing the spread of chromium-6, a carcinogen, from lab property into the water supply for Los Alamos County and San Ildefonso Pueblo, and says that project was also put on hold. While answering written questions from the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, the LANL Legacy Cleanup Technical Working Group disclosed that N3B, which manages the legacy cleanup contract for the Department of Energy, Office of Environmental Management and Los Alamos Field Office, stopped collecting water samples in March. The state is working with LANL to develop guidelines on masks, gloves, and distance to resume sampling.
District Senate 38 Democratic candidate Carrie Hamblen got a boost last week in her bid to defeat incumbent state senate candidate and President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen. That’s because the race narrowed to two candidates – Papen and Hamblen – last week when healthcare professional and entrepreneur Tracy Perry dropped out, citing health reasons. Hamblen, who was the morning radio host for National Public Radio local member station KRWG for 20 years, would have likely split the more left leaning Democratic voters in District 38 with Perry. But Hamblen said the race is now, “more of a challenge for Senator Papen.”
Perry’s name will remain on the ballot. Hamblen is one of seven progressive Democrats running for state senate seats in the upcoming June 2 primary against a group of more conservative-leaning Democrats.
The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) will not complete a programmatic study for environmental impacts of increased plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Labs (LANL) and one other lab located in South Carolina. The decision to not do so drew criticism from Nuclear Watch NM and other groups, who argue such assessments are required by law under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and an existing court order. Plutonium pits are the radioactive cores of nuclear warheads where the chemical reactions occur that cause the warhead to detonate. The U.S. made thousands of cores during the Cold War, but pit production has all but stopped in the last thirty years. Now, the federal government is getting ready to ramp up pit production in order to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and “assure the nation has a safe, secure and credible deterrent,” said Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the Department of Energy Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and the NNSA Administrator, in a statement.
Los Alamos has a starring role in a shift in U.S. nuclear policy that’s two presidential terms in the making. Nuclear watchdog groups in the state are concerned about the United States’ evolving nuclear agenda, which will see a sharp increase in plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). LANL recently released its $13 billion expansion proposal to accommodate increased pit production at the site. The expansion is part of a wider push across the country to ramp up the nuclear warhead manufacturing machine, according to Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group.
“We’re on the cusp at the moment of awakening the wolf in the domestic dog,” Mello told NM Political Report, adding that nuclear facilities across the country have increased production shifts and doubled staffs. “Everyone is hiring like crazy,” he said.
In the years between 1956 and 1972, thousands of kilograms of chemical called hexavalent chromium was released into a canyon near Los Alamos. Some of the contaminant filtered through the soils of the area and was consequently converted to trivalent chromium, a far less dangerous iteration of the chemical. But at least 2,000 kg of hexavalent chromium has remained in the environment, moving through the canyonlands that surround Los Alamos for decades. Today, the contamination is settled atop an aquifer in a plume, and the chemical is now present within the first 100 feet of the water table in the area of the plume. The Department of Energy (DOE) and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) have been working to contain the plume since 2005, while officials decide on how best to clean up the contamination.
In a defensive maneuver, New Mexico lawmakers are trying to position the state to maintain its tax revenues if nonprofit organizations become the primary contractor at Los Alamos or Sandia national laboratories. Currently, nonprofits operating in the state are exempt from paying gross receipts taxes. But Senate Bill 11 removes this exception for nonprofits that run national labs. The state House of Representatives on Sunday voted 64-0 in favor of the bill. This measure makes sure that “the revenue the state has consistently been receiving from the labs continues,” said Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos.
ByRebecca Moss, Santa Fe New Mexican and ProPublica |
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.