Japanese Nuclear Crisis Creates Urgent Need to Question Increased Earthquake Danger at LANL

March 25, 2011

The recent nuclear disaster at six Japanese nuclear power plants caused by an earthquake measured at 9.0 on the Richter scale, and the subsequent tsunami, heightens the importance of questions of safety at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and its proposal for a new, double the size of a Super WalMart, Nuclear Facility as part of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Building (CMRR) Project.

In the judgment of Santafean Everet Beckner, a former high-ranking official at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) between 2002 and 2005, the Japanese crisis suggests that now is an appropriate time for the United States to pause to consider its plans for domestic nuclear development.

For LANL, every decade since the 70's has seen new information brought to light about the precariousness of the geological formations underlying the mesas. An estimate in the 80's that the area might experience earthquakes as large as Richter magnitude 6.5 to 7.8 became outdated in the mid-'90's when more extensive mapping was done. In 2007, it was reported that the seismic danger had still been under-estimated. This finding meant that the first designs for the CMRR were inadequate. A revised design calls for an excavation to be filled with 225,000 cubic yards of concrete. The cost of the Nuclear Facility has escalated from an estimated $600 million in 2004 to over $6 billion today.

Since 2005, LANL has been required to hold semi-annual meetings about the CMRR Project as the result of a settlement with community organizations about an air emissions permit. The eleventh meeting held March 10 at Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos was full to capacity. The community groups presented a list of 17 questions for discussion, including several about the budget figure of $270 million whose allocation has yet to be determined. They also queried the practice of short-cutting the critical decision process even when safety in design requirements have not been met.

Everet Beckner said, "There comes a point where you have to say the earthquake event in Japan was outside the current window of expectations because it was larger than a thousand-year event ... Maybe that isn't enough of a margin." Beckner's language suggests that he would not want to see safeguards in construction reduced, but rather planned with a greater margin of safety.

Soon NNSA will release a draft supplemental to the original CMRR environmental impact statement, focusing on the Nuclear Facility. Dates for the hearings have not yet been announced. The public has an essential role to play at the hearings by addressing its questions and concerns, especially in light of the hazardous situation in Japan.

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