By Zelie Pollon
Santa Fe, New Mexico (Reuters) - The U.S. government should rethink plans for a multi-billion dollar plutonium complex at Los Alamos after the recent nuclear catastrophe in Japan and the discovery of increased seismic risk in New Mexico, nuclear watchdog groups said.
A hearing is set for Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque on a lawsuit filed by the Los Alamos Study Group seeking to block any further design, construction or funding of the proposed Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility until adequate studies of environmental impact and alternatives are complete.
"The real question is whether Los Alamos and the country need this facility at all," asked Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group. "Between now and 2023, this facility will generate nothing but cost to national security, to the environment, and to the taxpayer, no matter what design they choose. So the point is: Why build it?"
Los Alamos National Laboratory spokesman Kevin Roark said the proposed nuclear facility would replace existing capability at the old Chemical and Metallurgy Research building, which is a chemistry laboratory used to make sure plutonium is weapons grade and for ongoing quality control.
The new building would support the plutonium processing facility, which is used for manufacturing plutonium, stockpile surveillance, plutonium heat source fabrication for deep-space NASA missions, and other research and development involving nuclear materials, Roark said.
Federal officials say that the new complex is necessary to support nuclear security missions, including non-proliferation and counter-terrorism.
The project "is an important part of our effort to invest in the future, build a 21st-century nuclear security enterprise, implement the president's nuclear security agenda, and improve the way the (National Nuclear Security Administration) does business," said Josh McConaha, deputy director of public affairs for the administration.
But critics such as Jay Coughlin, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, say that seismic issues are a "very serious concern."
The laboratory recently released the results of a seismic analysis done in 2007 that showed "that a large earthquake that might occur in north-central New Mexico every 2,500 years could cause significant damage to some parts of the facility."
Lab officials say appropriate safety measures will be implemented as the project moves forward.
"Everyone at Los Alamos is committed to the safety of our workforce, our facilities, and the community we call home," said Bob McQuinn, the lab's associate director for nuclear and high hazard operations. "While the latest calculations revealed some new areas to improve, we will quickly incorporate those into our ongoing facility improvement activities."
Los Alamos, located 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe, is the home of the world's first atomic bomb, created through the top-secret Manhattan Project during the early part of World War II. The first bomb was tested at the Trinity site in south-central New Mexico in July 1945; two atomic bombs were then dropped on Japan the following month. To this day, New Mexico maintains the nation's largest nuclear weapons arsenal.
Mello's group says that recent cost-cutting proposals at the lab involve eliminating essential safety features.
In the event of an earthquake and inadequate safety features, highly carcinogenic plutonium smoke could escape the building, rendering the land beneath the plume too contaminated for use.
"It would be like a dirty bomb," Mello said.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)