COLUMBIA, S.C. — Watchdog groups sued the Biden administration Tuesday over its plans to produce plutonium cores for the U.S. nuclear stockpile, arguing federal agencies have failed to conduct a detailed environmental review of potential impacts around installations in New Mexico and South Carolina.
A lawsuit filed against the Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration calls on the federal agency that oversees U.S. nuclear research and bombmaking to take a legally required “hard look” at impacts on local communities and possible alternatives before expanding manufacturing of the plutonium cores used to trigger nuclear weapons.
The suit comes as U.S. officials have doubled down on a push to modernize the country’s nuclear arsenal and the science and technology that accompany it, citing global security concerns. The nuclear agency has said most of the plutonium cores currently in the stockpile date back to the 1970s and 1980s.
Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico and the Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina face deadlines to produce a set number of plutonium cores in coming years.
On Monday, the National Nuclear Security Administration gave key approval to the production project at the Savannah River Site. Yearly production of 50 or more cores at the South Carolina location is now estimated to cost between $6.9 billion to $11.1 billion, with a completion date ranging from 2032 to 2035.
The watchdog groups said Tuesday that the agency took a piecemeal approach to decide on locating the production at Los Alamos and the Savannah River Site, where nearby communities are already underrepresented and underserved.
“The environmental risk of there being an accident at either location causing the release of radioactive materials is real, and it would have significant consequences to the surrounding environment and communities,” said Leslie Lenhardt, an attorney with the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, which is representing the groups.
The nuclear agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The efforts to bolster the nuclear arsenal have spanned multiple presidential administrations, with the Biden administration reviewing modernization efforts begun during the Obama years that continued under Donald Trump’s presidency.
Critics of the plan are worried about lagging deadlines and bloated budgets on top of security concerns and the risks of nuclear waste and contamination. Some have argued the U.S. doesn’t need the new plutonium cores.
Tom Clements of Savannah River Site Watch said the South Carolina location was picked for political reasons following the failure of a facility designed to convert weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel. As the Savannah River Site has never served as a storage or production site for the pits in its history, establishing pit construction there would be “a daunting technical challenge that has not been properly reviewed,” Clements said.
Beginning in the 1950s, plutonium pits were produced at the Rocky Flats facility in Colorado, which had a long history of leaks, fires and environmental violations that needed a $7 billion, yearslong cleanup. That has left critics concerned about similar problems arising if new plutonium warhead factories are established in New Mexico and South Carolina.
Production moved in the 1990s to Los Alamos, where production over the years has been sporadic, plagued by safety problems and concerns about a lack of accountability.
Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.