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How a Tiny Group of Activists Blocked a Giant New Plutonium Facility

From New Mexico, a victory in the fight against nuclear proliferation.
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Plutonium photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration

Extracting plutonium at a plant in Sweden.

Photo courtesy of NNSA News.

In February, a tiny group of activists won a victory in the fight against nuclear proliferation. The citizen-led Los Alamos Study Group helped derail a $6 billion plutonium handling and processing center at Los Alamos National Laboratories. 

The center was originally proposed in the 1990s, and the plans expanded greatly over the years, up from an initial budget of about $380 million. After years of monitoring the project, the group filed a federal lawsuit petitioning for greater environmental impact review of the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement building. Finally, President Obama dropped it from the federal budget in February. The project is on hold for at least five years while DOE officials review safety concerns and rising costs. 

Plans for the facility were shrouded in mystery from the beginning. Initially, the Department of Energy claimed the center was needed to manufacture nuclear warhead cores, also known as “pits.” Under the second Bush Administration, the explanation shifted, and DOE said the center would support the warhead replacement or modernization program. 

Construction of the 270,000-square-foot building was set to begin when the Los Alamos Study Group filed suit in August 2010. The suit argued the project had outgrown the DOE’s earlier environmental impact study. “Now they were talking about 100 times more concrete and 100,000 heavy truck trips,” as well as bigger roads, more steel, more energy and water usage, and more air pollution,” said Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group. 

Mello thought it was incongruous for Los Alamos to expand, when the United States has signed treaties to decrease the nuclear arsenal. “We need to move away from mutually assured destruction and build a more sustainable society,” he said. 


Stuart Glascock wrote this article for Making it Home, the Summer 2012 issue of YES! Magazine.

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