This undated aerial view shows the Los Alamos National laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. While much of the public outcry over Los Alamos in recent years has focused on lagging cleanup efforts of radioactive waste and hazardous runoff into the canyons, earthquake danger and the potential for catastrophic releases of radiation from existing facilities was front and center at a recent meeting in Santa Fe of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. (AP)

At Los Alamos National Laboratory, scientists and engineers refer to their planned new multibillion-dollar nuclear lab by its clunky abbreviation, CMRR, short for Chemistry Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility. But as a work in progress for three decades and with hundreds of millions of dollars already spent, it has issues bigger than nomenclature.

Questions continue to swirl about exactly what kind of nuclear and plutonium research will be done there, whether the lab is really necessary, and — perhaps most important — will it be safe, or could it become New Mexico’s equivalent of Japan’s Fukushima?

As federal officials prepare the final design plans for the lab, increased scrutiny is being placed on the potential for a major earthquake along the fault lines in northern New Mexico that carved out the stunning gorges, canyons and valleys that surround the nation’s premier nuclear weapons facility.

The new lab also comes with a price tag estimate of $5.8 billion, almost $1 billion more than New Mexico’s annual state budget and more than double the national lab’s total annual budget. That’s a big expenditure at a time when a cash-strapped Congress looks to trim defense spending.

Despite the uncertainty, the National Nuclear Safety Administration, an arm of the Energy Department that oversees the nation’s nuclear labs, is moving forward on final designs for the lab.

Project director Herman Le­Doux says it has been redesigned with input from the nation’s leading seismic experts, and the agency has “gone to great extremes” to ensure the planned building could withstand an earthquake of up to 7.3 magnitude. Most seismic experts agree that would be a worst-case scenario for the area, but many people who live near the lab see no reason for taking such chances.

“The Department of Energy has learned nothing from the Fukushima disaster,” David McCoy, executive director of Citizens Action New Mexico, an environmental and nuclear watchdog group, said at a recent oversight hearing. That’s become a common refrain since an earthquake and tsunami struck in Japan in March, causing a series of equipment failures that led to the release of radioactive materials at a nuclear plant in Fukushima.

“The major lesson of Fukushima is ignored by NNSA: Don’t build dangerous facilities in unsafe natural settings,” McCoy said.

Officials at Los Alamos say the new lab is needed to replace a 1940s-era facility that is beyond renovation yet crucial to supporting its mission as the primary center for maintaining and developing the country’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. Though much of the work is classified, they insist the lab’s mission is to do analytical work to support the nearby Plutonium Facility, or PF-4, which is the only building in the country equipped for making the cores that power nuclear weapons.

Watchdog groups, however, call it an effort to escalate the production of new nuclear weapons and turn what has largely been a research facility into a bomb factory, and they aren’t giving up their efforts to stop the project.

The Los Alamos Study Group has two lawsuits challenging the project and what the group says is the federal government’s refusal to look at alternatives despite increased seismic threats uncovered in 2007 that have sent the price tag soaring. The group’s leader, Greg Mello, spends his days poring over every available public document on Los Alamos and the nation’s nuclear program. And he makes frequent trips to Washington to lobby against funding for the new lab.

“Los Alamos doesn’t have that safety ethos needed for a facility that will store the bulk of the nation’s stockpile of plutonium,” Mello said

Peter Winokur, chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which was appointed by Congress to oversee the nation’s nuclear facilities, agreed that safety remains a concern at the lab, but he said his board has worked closely with the nuclear safety agency to ensure the new lab is designed to withstand a major quake, so the board is not concerned about that project — “as long as they follow through.”

“It’s fair to say they have improved safety at the sites” since the last contractor took over operations in 2006, Winokur said. But he pointed to two recent memos about deficiencies in nuclear safety programs that he said underscore the fact “that the operations out there are very challenging and that there is plenty of room for improvement.”

Asked if he thought it was wise to spend billions of dollars to keep the nation’s nuclear weapons operations centered on an earthquake-prone mesa, Winokur, a former manager of the radiation technology and assurance department at Sandia National Laboratories, said his mandate from Congress is to oversee safety, not second guess major policy decisions.

“I’ll leave that to Congress and DOE,” Winokur said.

— Associated Press