The National Environmental Policy Act: The National Nuclear Safety Administration Reverses Course and Concedes the Existence of Reasonable Alternatives to the Proposed Six Billion Dollar Nuclear Pit Facility

Posted on February 22, 2012 by Thomas Hnasko

After dismissal of The Los Alamos Study Group’s (the “Study Group”) complaint challenging the United States Department of Energy (“DOE”) and the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (“NNSA”) efforts to construct the new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (“CMRR-NF”) at Los Alamos, New Mexico – based on the absence of any Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) analyzing the facility and its alternatives – the Study Group appealed the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.  The Study Group claims on appeal that, regardless of promises by the federal defendants to conduct more NEPA paperwork, a major federal action cannot be implemented unless it has been analyzed in an applicable EIS and authorized by a record of decision (“ROD”).

In the Tenth Circuit, the federal defendants filed a motion to dismiss, claiming the appeal was moot because the federal defendants had issued, after the lower court’s decision, a Supplemental EIS (“SEIS”) authorizing the current CMRR-NF project.  The federal defendants stated in the SEIS that, although the original CMRR-NF as analyzed and authorized by a 2003 EIS and 2004 ROD could no longer be built due to significant changes and seismic conditions, this deficiency was cured by the 2011 SEIS authorizing the current iteration of the project.  The Study Group responded to the motion to dismiss by stating that, under NEPA, no federal project can be implemented unless and until an applicable EIS has been performed and no EIS, with an analysis of current alternatives, supported the current project.  The Tenth Circuit sided with the Study Group, denied the motion to dismiss, and directed the parties to proceed to briefing on the merits.  Briefing is now completed, and the matter awaits oral argument.

While the appeal was pending, the Study Group filed yet another suit against the federal defendants, challenging the continual implementation of the project and the absence of reasonable alternatives in the 2011 SEIS.  The federal defendants have answered the complaint in the second suit and the parties were in the process of negotiating pre-trial procedures, when the matter took an unusual turn.

On Monday, February 13, 2012, NNSA abruptly announced that it would be “deferring the construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgical Research Replacement (“CMRR”) facility and meeting plutonium requirements by using existing facilities in the nuclear complex.”  The use of existing facilities by NNSA is an alternative which the Study Group vigorously advocated in the lower court prior to dismissal of the first case, in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, and also in the second suit.  The available facilities, as a reasonable alternative to the 2011-12 CMRR, include sharing workload with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and other plutonium-capable facilities.  Moreover, in the event additional storage is needed for plutonium or special nuclear materials, the Device Assembly Facility in Nevada remains available for that purpose.

Since NNSA’s adoption of the Study Group’s position, the relative legal positions of the parties are unclear.  Although NNSA has not abandoned the CMRR project altogether, it has stated the project will be deferred for at least five years (after FY 2013).  Such a deferral would mean CMRR would not be built until at least 2018, some fifteen years after the original 2003 EIS authorizing a much smaller version of the project, and at least seven years after the issuance of the 2011 SEIS seemingly ratifying the NNSA’s decision to build the $6 billion project.  Under these circumstances, the Study Group will likely argue that no further activity can be taken on any aspect of the CMRR facility based on an antiquated EIS that could not possibly consider the myriad alternatives existing today, and certainly not those that will exist in or after 2018.  In this regard, both cases appear ripe for a declaration that a fresh EIS must be performed, together with applicable scoping, prior to any commitment to a project that may or may not be built at some unspecified time in the future.



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