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For Immediate Release February 22, 2018NNSA Releases Draft Environmental Assessment for LANL Rad Lab; Raises Plutonium Limit 10 Times for Expanded Pit Production

Santa Fe, NM.  Today the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced an Environmental Assessment (EA) to increase the amount of plutonium used in the Radiological Laboratory Utility and Office Building (AKA the “Rad Lab”) at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) from 38.6 grams of plutonium-239 equivalent to 400 grams. [See NNSA notice below.] This 10-fold increase is significant because it will dramatically expand materials characterization[1] and analytical chemistry[2] capabilities in the Rad Lab in support of expanded plutonium pit production for future nuclear weapons designs. It also re-categorizes the Rad Lab from a “radiological facility” to a “Hazard Category-3” nuclear facility.

There is currently no plutonium pit production scheduled for the existing nuclear weapons stockpile. Instead, independent scientists have concluded that pits last a century or more (without a proscribed end date), and the U.S. already has some 15,000 pits stored at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, TX. Despite that, LANL is now tooling up to produce new pits for a proposed Interoperable Warhead that is supposed to replace existing warheads on the Air Force’s Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and the Navy’s sub-launched Trident missiles. However, the future of the Interoperable Warhead is still very much in doubt because the Navy doesn’t want it.[3]

In December 2015 the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) reported that then-DOE Secretary Moniz approved re-categorizing the Rad Lab “with a material-at-risk limit of 400 g plutonium- 239 equivalent.” [4] Starting in 2016, NNSA has already spent $2 million in the process to re-categorize the Rad Lab. However, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that federal officials conduct public review and comment before reaching a decision to commit “irretrievable resources” (such as taxpayer funding) to a proposed project. Hence conducting an environmental assessment (EA) after the fact arguably violates the law.

Moreover, NEPA also prohibits the “segmentation” of issues and requires that all “connected” actions be included in the same public review. This environmental assessment (EA) to raise the plutonium limit in the Rad Lab should not be a standalone document, but instead be part of a far broader programmatic environmental impact statement on expanded plutonium pit production.

NNSA will no doubt argue that this narrow environmental assessment to raise the amount of plutonium at the Rad Lab is legal because it merely seeks to replace the capabilities of the old and dangerous Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building. However, this all goes back to the Department of Energy’s 1996 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Programmatic Environmental Statement, which resulted in a formal Record of Decision to relocate plutonium pit production at the Los Alamos Lab.[5] However, that decision specifically limited pit production at LANL to 20 pits per year because of the dangerous, deteriorating conditions at the old CMR Building, which the Rad Lab was to partially replace.

The larger Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Project “Nuclear Facility” was canceled in 2012 when project costs exploded from an originally estimated $600 million to as high as $6.5 billion. Following that NNSA decided without any NEPA review to pursue a 3-fold strategy to maintain plutonium operations at LANL by 1) raising the plutonium limit in the Rad Lab; 2) upgrading LANL’s main plutonium facility PF-4; and 3) building two or three underground “modular” facilities at $1 billion each.[6]

However, over the last decade plutonium operations at LANL have had a very troubled history. In February 2014 a radioactive plutonium waste drum improperly prepared by the Lab ruptured underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, contaminating 21 workers and closing that facility for nearly three years, at a cost of at least $1.5 billion to the taxpayer to reopen. Also during that time many major plutonium operations at PF-4 were suspended for three years because of serious nuclear criticality safety concerns.[7] As a result, NNSA is now openly considering whether to have expanded plutonium pit production at LANL or the Savannah River Site near Aiken, SC, or both, while the construction of underground modules at LANL seems increasingly unlikely.

Today’s draft environmental assessment claims that nothing has changed in the Rad Lab’s purpose and need since 2003, when an environmental impact statement was completed for the entire Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project.[8] That statement is preposterous on its face because of the cancellation of the CMRR-Nuclear Facility alone. The draft environmental assessment itself states that the plutonium increase in the Rad Lab is expected to be “Sufficient for the combined RLUOB and PF-4 capabilities to satisfy anticipated programmatic needs for AC [analytical chemistry] and MC [materials characterization][9] (Emphasis added.). “Anticipated programmatic needs for AC and MC” are easily foreseeable as Congress has statutorily required the expansion of plutonium pit production to demonstrate the capability of producing up to 80 pits per year by 2027. More recently, the Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review requires NNSA to “Provide the enduring capability and capacity to produce plutonium pits at a rate of no fewer than 80 pits per year by 2030.” (Emphasis added.) But the 1996 ceiling of 20 pits per year has never been officially raised following NEPA review, despite numerous NNSA attempts to do so.[10]

Jay Coghlan, Nuclear Watch Director, commented, “NNSA needs to get its NEPA house in order. Instead of this lessor environmental assessment to increase the amount of plutonium in the Rad Lab, there should instead be programmatic review of all aspects of expanded plutonium pit production, including the inevitable cost overruns, nuclear safety problems, and contamination. Most of all, the need for expanded plutonium pit production should be publicly and firmly established, instead of vaguely being for speculative future new nuclear weapons designs that aren’t needed and may actually degrade national security because they can’t be full-scale tested.”

# # # Draft Environmental Assessment Available for Public Comment

The National Nuclear Security Administration released a draft environmental assessment for public comment today that proposes operational changes to the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building (RLUOB) at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

NNSA prepared the Draft Environmental Assessment of Proposed Changes for Analytical Chemistry and Materials Characterization at the Radiological Laboratory/Utility/Office Building, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico (Draft EA) (DOE/EA-2052), in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

This Draft EA evaluates the potential environmental impacts of recategorizing RLUOB from a Radiological Facility to a Hazard Category 3 Nuclear (HC-3) Facility with an increased material-at-risk limit of 400 grams of plutonium-equivalent material (PuE), which is 15 percent of PuE allowed in an HC-3 Facility.

Increasing the allowable radioactive material inventory from the current 38.6 grams of PuE to 400 grams would enhance the use of laboratory space in Technical Area55.

The proposed approach would allow some analytical chemistry and materials characterization capabilities previously planned for LANL’s Plutonium Facility-4 Building to be installed in RLUOB. The purpose of the EA will provide sufficient evidence and analysis to determine whether to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement or to issue a Finding of No Significant Impact.

The public is invited to comment on the Draft EA during the 30-day review period ending on March 26, 2018.  The Draft EA is available on the Department of Energy’s NEPA website. A copy of the Draft EA is also available for review at the Los Alamos National Laboratory Reading Room, 94 Cities of Gold Road, Pojoaque, NM 87506.

Comments may be submitted via e-mail at or U.S. mail at:  U.S. Mail:   NNSA Los Alamos Field Office, ATTN: CMRR Project Management Office, 3747 West Jemez Road, Los Alamos, NM  87544

[1] Materials characterization ensures that the plutonium and/or highly enriched uranium is of sufficient “weapons-grade” to begin pit production to begin with.
[2] Analytical chemistry performs up to a hundred quality control samples per pit as it is being produced.
[3] See 2012 Navy memo leaked to Nuclear Watch and Tri-Valley CAREs at
[5] That decision was prompted by a 1989 FBI raid investigating environmental crimes that abruptly stopped production at the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, CO.
[6] The Rad Lab itself has increased from original actual costs of $400 million to build and equip to a total estimated cost of $1.4 billion to raise the plutonium limit and install additional equipment by 2026 for expanded plutonium pit production.
[7] See the investigative series Nuclear Negligence, Patrick Malone, Center for Public Integrity, The factual basis for that groundbreaking series is from the NNSA’s Performance Evaluation Report, which are publicly available because Nuclear Watch successfully sued for them in 2012.
[8] EA-2052: Proposed Changes for Analytical Chemistry and Materials Characterization at the Radiological Laboratory/Utility/Office Building, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1.2 Purpose and Need for Agency Action, p. 5,

[9] Ibid., page 10. [10] NNSA tried but failed to raise the pit production cap in the 2003 Modern Pit Facility environmental impact statement, the 2008 LANL Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement, and the 2010 Complex Transformation Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.

– Jay Coghlan Executive Director, Nuclear Watch New Mexico


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[From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]

Malacidins are a class of chemicals made by bacteria found in soil that kill Gram-positive bacteria. Their activity appears to be dependent on calcium. The discovery of malacidins was published in 2018.[2]
The malacidin family were discovered using a new method of soil microbiome screening, which allowed researchers to identify genetic components necessary to produce the chemical. Malacidin A was shown to kill Staphylococcus aureus and other Gram-positive bacteria.
At the time of the publication it was not certain if the discovery would lead to any new antibiotic drugs because large investments of time and money are required to determine if a drug is safe and effective.[3]

Chemical structure
Malacidins are macrocycle lipopeptides. The 2018 paper described two chemicals in the malacidin family, differing only by a methylene at their lipid tails.[2] Their peptide cores include four non-proteinogenic amino acids.[2] The name “malacidin” is derived from the abbreviation of metagenomic acidic lipopeptide antibiotic and the suffix -cidin.[4]
Mechanism of action[edit]
Malacidins appear to take on their active conformation after they bind to calcium; the calcium-bound molecule then appears to bind to lipid II, a bacterial cell wall precursor molecule, leading to destruction of the cell wall and death of the bacteria.[2][5] Therefore, they would be a new member of the class of calcium-dependent antibiotics.[2][3] The discovery of malacidins supported the view that the calcium-dependent antibiotics are a larger class than previously thought.[2]

Malacidins were discovered by researchers at Rockefeller University, led by Brad Hover and Sean Brady. The group had been looking into antibiotics related to daptomycin and their calcium-dependent nature, but determined that it would be impractical to culture variations in lab conditions.[4] Instead, the team used a genetics approach that was more scalable. They focused on searching for novel biosynthetic gene clusters (BGCs) – genes that are usually expressed together, that bacteria use to make secondary metabolites. To do this, they extracted DNA from over 2000 soils to build metagenomic libraries that captured the genetic diversity of the environmental microbiome. They then designed degenerate primers to amplify genes likely to be similar to the BGC that make daptomycin by using a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) procedure, sequenced the amplified genes, and then used metagenomics to confirm that these genes were indeed likely to be the kind of BGCs they sought. One of the novel BGCs they found was present in around 19% of the screened soil samples but not readily found in cultured microbial collections, so they took that BGC, put it into other host bacteria, and then isolated and analyzed the secondary metabolites.[2][4] The work was published in Nature Microbiology in February 2018.[2][6]

Research directions
The approach of screening the soil for useful compounds using genomics has been done by others, and is likely to continue to be pursued as a method to further explore primary metabolites and secondary metabolites made by microrganisms.[3][7]
As of 2018, the malacidins have not been tested in humans. At the time of their discovery it was unknown whether the discovery would lead to any new antibiotic drugs; showing that a potential drug is safe and effective takes years of work and millions of dollars, and the scientists said at the time that they had no plans to try to develop a drug based on the work.[3][7] In the 2018 paper, malacidins were shown to kill only Gram-positive bacteria and not Gram-negative bacteria.[2][6] They were, however, able to kill multidrug-resistant pathogens, including bacteria resistant to vancomycin in the laboratory, and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) skin infections in an animal wound model.[2][6]
Brady, Hover, and two other authors disclosed in the 2018 paper that they had “competing financial interests as they are employees or consultants of Lodo Therapeutics.”[2] Lodo was founded in 2016 out of Brady’s lab, to discover new chemicals in nature as starting points for drug discovery.[8]