Court Vacates Legal Authority for Nuclear Bomb Plant Construction in Oak Ridge, Tennessee
KNOXVILLE, TN (September 24, 2019) — Judge Pamela Reeves, Chief United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Tennessee, declared the Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration in violation of the National Environment Policy Act and vacated key decisions regarding NNSA’s enriched uranium operations at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
“With this ruling,” said Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, “the NNSA no longer has any legal authority to continue construction of the Uranium Processing Facility bomb plant.”
Reeves’ 104-page ruling declares “the 2016 Supplement Analysis, the 2016 Amended Record of Decision, the 2018 Supplement Analysis . . . are vacated.” The 2016 Amended Record of Decision was prepared by the NNSA to “reflect its decision to implement a revised approach for meeting enriched uranium requirements by upgrading existing EU processing buildings and constructing a new Uranium Processing Facility.”
The 2016 A-ROD was the first formal statement of NNSA’s plan to separate its single-structure UPF design into multiple buildings and to continue using two out-of-compliance facilities for enriched uranium operations for at least twenty more years.
Reeves ruled on a lawsuit brought by the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, Nuclear Watch New Mexico, the Natural Resources Defense Council and several individual plaintiffs challenging the federal government’s environmental analysis for its nuclear weapons operations in Oak Ridge. Reeves rejected two of the plaintiff’s claims but validated their argument that new earthquake data, published in 2014, must be considered in NNSA’s environmental analysis.
“The court has ordered NNSA to prepare a new environmental analysis,” Hutchison noted. “This is precisely what we called for five years ago. The NNSA should do what we asked them to do several years ago—prepare a new Site-wide Environmental Impact Statement for Y-12.”
Dismissing one of the government’s arguments—that its analysis of potential seismic impacts was sufficient—Reeves wrote: “Y-12 is located in a populous and quickly growing part of the country. Within the range of possible NEPA cases that might come through this courthouse, the Court is hard-pressed to imagine a more dramatic hypothetical than this, where it must contemplate what might occur if a major earthquake struck a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility located in a major population center.”
The citizen plaintiffs are represented by Nick Lawton, formerly an associate at the public interest law firm, Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks LLP, and now an associate at the successor public interest law firm Eubanks & Associates, LLC.
After reviewing the decision, Lawton said, “In holding the NNSA accountable for its failure to seriously consider new information on seismic hazards, the court recognized the seriousness of this case. We are pleased that the court is requiring the agency to prepare a new, more specific consideration of earthquake risks, and we encourage the agency to come into compliance with NEPA by fully disclosing these serious risks and by properly involving the public in any ongoing decision-making process.”
Geoff Fettus, counsel for NRDC, said, “The UPF, an exorbitantly expensive project, is at the heart of the continuing nuclear weapons complex with all its security and environmental risks. We are gratified that the Court saw the need to ensure the weapons complex complies with our national environmental laws. This is good day for the environment and the Southeast.”
The decision may have ramifications for NNSA’s efforts to expand nuclear weapons production at other sites, too, including Los Alamos, NM and Savannah River, SC, where environmental scoping is underway for a new plutonium pit manufacturing facility.
Jay Coghlan, director of co-plaintiff Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said, “Uranium and plutonium components manufacturing are two sides of the same coin of expanding nuclear weapons production in an escalating arms race. The Department of Energy should take this court ruling against its Uranium Processing Facility as a warning that it must also comply with National Environmental Policy Act requirements while ill-advisably expanding the production of plutonium pits, the radioactive cores of nuclear weapons.”
The ruling also points out the crucial role the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board plays in monitoring safety issues at Y-12 and across the nuclear weapons complex. Since last year, the Department of Energy has worked to reduce the Safety Board’s access to some nuclear facilities, even issuing a revised Order to limit the information available to the Board and the restricting who the Board can and cannot speak to directly.
“The court relied, as we did, on the excellent work of the Safety Board in coming to an understanding of the issues surrounding the safety of the old buildings in Oak Ridge,” Hutchison noted. “We urge the Department of Energy to abandon its efforts to constrain the oversight powers of the Board. The Board has always been scrupulous about adhering to its limited mandate, and it has also been a window into the world of DOE. This case shows why we need that transparency—it’s the last line of accountability we have left.”
The decision can be found here: http://orepa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/OREPA-Ruling.pdf
Court Vacates Legal Authority for Nuclear Bomb Plant Construction in Oak Ridge, Tennessee
John Huotari / Oak Ridge Today
(September 24, 2019) — A federal judge in Knoxville on Tuesday said a critical decision made in 2016 for enriched uranium operations at the Y-12 National Security Complex, including for the $6.5 billion Uranium Processing Facility, violated a national environmental law, and she ordered the decision vacated, or set aside.
The UPF is already under construction, and it wasn’t immediately clear Tuesday evening how the ruling by Chief US District Judge Pamela L. Reeves might affect the work.
One of the plaintiffs said the decision to vacate the amended record of decision published in the Federal Register in 2016 means the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees Y-12, no longer has the legal authority to continue construction work at UPF.
Besides the amended record of decision, Reeves said supplement analyses prepared in 2016 and 2018 also violated the National Environmental Policy Act, and she said they were to be set aside as well.
In a 104-page ruling filed in US District Court on Tuesday, Reeves ordered the NNSA to conduct more environmental studies, including one of earthquake hazards at Y-12 using updated seismic information.
The UPF is a multi-building facility described as the federal government’s largest construction project in Tennessee since World War II. It’s expected to be completed by 2025 at a cost of no more than $6.5 billion. It will consolidate enriched uranium work and replace some old buildings at Y-12, which was built to enrich uranium for atomic bombs during World War II.
After Tuesday’s decision, the next steps were not immediately clear. Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the plaintiffs will wait to see how the government responds.
The plaintiffs believe the NNSA should abide by the federal’s court ruling, and construction should stop until the NNSA has the proper environmental documents required by law, Hutchison said. He said that would include a new record of decision and other proper paperwork.
“The NNSA should do what we asked them to do several years ago: Prepare a new site-wide environmental impact statement for Y-12,” Hutchison said.
The NNSA did not immediately respond to questions Tuesday evening, including one asking how UPF construction work might be affected, if at all, by the federal court’s decision. It’s also not clear whether the NNSA, which is part of the US Department of Energy, might file an appeal.
The lawsuit was filed in July 2017. It alleged that DOE and the NNSA had violated federal environmental law, and it asked for an environmental review of the new UPF design. At one time, UPF was going to be a single building next to the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility at Y-12. It would have consolidated the manufacturing operations in one building.
But the 2016 record of decision reported that the UPF, which would now be smaller, would have several buildings, and the NNSA would continue to house some enriched uranium operations in existing buildings, which would be upgraded. That was part of an effort to hold down costs, and it followed a review of the project by a group known as the Red Team.
Hutchison cited two old buildings that he said will continue to be used, 9215 and Beta 2E. They don’t meet seismic standards, among other things, Hutchison said.
When they filed their lawsuit in 2017, the plaintiffs warned that the NNSA did not consider, after the change in the UPF design, the increased odds of large earthquakes and the hazards they might pose to the old buildings. The plaintiffs said new earthquake data published by the US Geological Survey in 2014, after a 2011 record of decision but before the 2016 record of decision, must be considered in the NNSA’s environmental analysis. On Tuesday, Reeves agreed, the plaintiffs said, although she rejected two of their other claims.
“Y-12 is located in a populous and quickly growing part of the country,” the plaintiffs said, citing Reeves’ ruling. “Within the range of possible NEPA cases that might come through this courthouse, the court is hard-pressed to imagine a more dramatic hypothetical than this, where it must contemplate what might occur if a major earthquake struck a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility located in a major population center.”
In her ruling, Reeves said the 2014 map showed a much higher earthquake hazard for all of East Tennessee than previous versions had. And structural reviews of existing buildings at Y-12 by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board revealed many structural deficiencies in buildings that were now going to remain at the 811-acre nuclear weapons plant, Reeves said.
Besides considering the new information on seismic hazards, the plaintiffs said they want the NNSA to involve the public in any ongoing decision-making process.
The lawsuit was initially filed in US District Court in the District of Columbia, but it was later moved to the Eastern District of Tennessee. Besides OREPA, the plaintiffs included two other public interest organizations — Nuclear Watch of New Mexico and Natural Resources Defense Council of Washington, D.C. — and several individual plaintiffs.
The current defendants are Energy Secretary James Richard “Rick” Perry and NNSA Administrator Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty.
Read Reeves’ opinion and order here.
More information will be added as it becomes available. You can contact John Huotari, owner and publisher of Oak Ridge Today, at (865) 951-9692 or email@example.com.
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