An air pollution permit that would allow increased explosives testing will be further delayed after federal officials proposed to halt nuclear-related test blasts at Site 300 and consolidate them with experiments at labs in New Mexico and Nevada.
Tucked in the Altamont Hills, Site 300 is one of three major sites slated to cease tests for nuclear weapons components after President Bush in December approved a plan to bar three of the nation’s eight biggest test ranges from continuing nuclear bomb tests.
Even if the government bans nuclear testing, lab officials said, Site 300 will stay open to continue experiments for other federal agencies, including the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.
Until the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration decides to stop nuclear tests at the local site, lab and federal officials will discuss alternative uses for the land, lab spokeswoman Susan Houghton said Thursday. Open meetings in March will seek public input about those options, she added.
"It’s going to be an industrial site no matter what," she said.
Meanwhile, partly because federal plans for Site 300 are still up in the air and partly due to the lab’s recent change from public to private management, Houghton said efforts to reapply for the permit will be put on the back burner. The lab is now run by Lawrence Livermore National Security LLC, Bechtel National Inc., University of California, Berkeley, BWX Technologies Inc. and Washington Group International Inc.
"We’ve slowed the process down a bit," Houghton said. "There’s been no formal decision on whether we need the permit at all. We might, but we can’t say yet."
In September, the San Joaquin County Air Pollution Control District further delayed the lab’s permit by making the lab foot the cost of a full-scale environmental review that would examine the proposed tests’ effect on groundwater and wildlife, as well as air quality.
The lab would also pay any legal costs incurred because of increased explosives tests under the still-unwritten contract, air district officials said.
"As a single-purpose district, we can’t determine how this project would affect anything besides the air," said district air quality specialist Daniel Barber, who keeps tabs on correspondence between the district and the lab. "So we’re going to bring in consultants, experts in other areas, to decide what the impact would be."
The last letter the district got from the lab was in October to explain that it had a change in management and that it would draft a contract with the county after it "worked things out, since a few things changed with the new supervisors," Barber said, summing up the correspondence.
Until the district and lab write up a contract and the district determines how long it would take to review the site, the cost of the review will remain a mystery, Barber added.
The lab first applied for the permit in September 2006, but the air district retracted its approval after sharp criticism from the public and the lab’s omission of the fact that explosions would release mildly radioactive depleted uranium into the air upwind of Tracy.
During the summer, the district asked the lab to submit details about the types of detonations it planned after permit approval, why it would use open-air blasts and what measures the lab would take to contain particles from the explosions.
The lab responded with a detailed letter in July, explaining that tests must be done outside any enclosure to "replicate the application’s end-use, including the possibility of battlefield conditions … (and) natural and human-induced conditions … that could not be replicated in the relatively small space of a contained firing facility."
The lab also responded that gravel-covered firing tables would absorb shock and minimize suspended dust after the explosions.
Should federal authorities bar nuclear weapon component tests at Site 300, more than 900 workers could be out of a job within two to seven years, mostly because the site will need fewer security personnel.
This month, the lab will continue to lay off hundreds of contract and temporary employees. After more workers are released Jan. 16, more than 500 workers will have been laid off since the lab was privatized in October.
The layoffs are separate from federal plans to consolidate nuclear test sites, Houghton said.