Los Alamos Watchdog Shoots an Arrow at the Beating Heart of Nuclear Weapons

In a recent Focal Points post, we posed a fundamental question: Who stands at the front lines of disarmament? Is it the makers of the new movie Countdown to Zero? Disarmament groups like the Ploughshares Fund and the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Commission? Weapons-system-trashing activists a la the Berrigan brothers? Using the last as a reference point, we concluded that “even the perimeter fences of a submarine base aren’t the front lines of disarmament. The honor goes to those groups that act as watchdogs on behalf of the public for U.S. national laboratories such as Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore.”

Greg Mello is the head of the primary watchdog for the former, the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG). As I wrote in my previous post, he explained that “$3.4 billion of the proposed $16 billion in new warhead spending [in the federal budget] is to be allotted to the construction of a Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility for the construction of nuclear pits. In a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists piece, he writes that, at 270,000-square-feet, the new facility ‘would add only 22,500-square-feet of additional plutonium processing and lab space to [Los Alamos's] existing 59,600-square-feet of comparable space.’ [That] works out to $151,000 per square foot, or $1,049 per square inch.’ Holy (watch your tax dollars go up in) smoke!”

Even worse, since “there is already a surfeit of backup pits [which] will last for many decades to come” the new facility “would increase production capacity to an even more absurd level.” To provide perspective, as LASG notes elsewhere, “If built, it would be by far the most expensive government project ever built in New Mexico except the interstate highways.”

To give you an idea of how LASG actually works, one of its staff, Darwin BondGraham, wrote in a press release, “Earlier this year we finally obtained enough information from [the Department of Energy] and its contractors to confidently determine that the increased cost, greatly expanded construction requirements, and . . . new environmental impacts . . . make the [Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement] different [from what] was originally analyzed.” Thus: “On July 1 we formally notified the U.S. Department of Energy of our intent to seek a new Environmental Impact Statement, and to pursue an injunction against [the] Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement [facility].”

This is what life on the disarmament front lines looks like: poring over the books cheek by jowl with lawyers. And this, courtesy of an August 16 LASG press release, is what a frontal assault looks like.

The Los Alamos Study Group today filed a complaint in federal District Court in Albuquerque to halt further investment in [the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility]. . . . The complaint was filed against the Department of Energy . . . and the National Nuclear Security Administration [the NNSA, which, LASG alleges] have violated the National Environmental Protection Act . . . by preparing to construct [the facility] without an applicable Environmental Impact Statement. [Mello said] “NNSA changed the project to which it had committed without telling anyone, and without environmental analysis of alternatives either to the project.”

Why an environmental impact statement? Department of Energy changes . . .

. . . helped drive the proposed facility underground — into a thick stratum of loose volcanic ash which cannot support [the] new excavated depth of 125 feet (up from 50 feet) and replacement of an entire geologic stratum beneath the building with 225,000 cubic yards of concrete and grout. [This would also result in] greatly increased CO2 emissions including more than 100,000 tons from concrete production alone [and] from 20,000 to 110,000 heavy truck [trips] just for concrete ingredients and disposal — somewhere — of loose volcanic ash.

To sum up, the Los Alamos Study Group is on the front lines of disarmament because it’s confronting production of the nuclear pit, the beating heart of a nuclear weapon — where the chain reaction occurs. As another such watchdog, Livermore’s Tri-Valley CAREs, put it: “Stopping nuclear weapons where they start.”

If you agree that LASG is (wo)manning the front lines of disarmament and you’d like to help, but are leery of NGOs top-heavy with administrative salaries, consider LASG. Donating to this self-contained, action-oriented organization figures to give you a lot of bang for the charitable buck. And make no mistake, bucks have got to bang if we hope to block the biggest modern-day bang of all — the detonation of a nuclear bomb.