Proposed transmission project near nuclear lab raises concerns


A previous version of this story misspelled Kerinia Cusick's name. This has been corrected.

The National Nuclear Security Administration is proposing to build an energy transmission line that would run across the protected Caja del Rio wilderness in northern New Mexico. It would be the third such line in this area. The NNSA said Los Alamos National Laboratory needs the extra boost in power for national security interests.

But leaders from pueblos and environmental groups are concerned about transparency, the legal process, and the impact on the land.

Located on the lower end of the Santa Fe National Forest, the Caja del Rio, or the “box of the river” in its literal translation from Spanish, is over 100,000 acres of land dominated by piñon-juniper woodlands.

It boasts a diverse array of wildlife – from burrowing owls to herds of elk – but it also holds immeasurable value to those who have called the Caja home for generations.

“It is a living, cultural landscape,” said Jim James, the legal council for the nearby Pueblo of Tesuque.

James has become increasingly concerned about a proposed 115-Kilovolt power transmission project that would cut across approximately 14 miles of the Caja del Rio plateau.

That’s where the National Nuclear Security Administration wants to connect a new line from the PNM Norton power substation northwest of Santa Fe to LANL in the interest of “maintaining” and “enhancing” the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

The power increase would also help scientists reach the full potential of their supercomputers. LANL said it owns two of the three most powerful supercomputers in the world, but neither has enough processing power to unlock all the capabilities of complicated climate modeling software.

A LANL spokesperson said the electrical power capacity upgrade project “would support a new, more powerful supercomputer” that will facilitate climate modeling, while “also supporting the Laboratory’s other cutting-edge experiments in neutron science, medical isotope research, and innumerable other fields of research and development.”

However, the project would require amending the recently revised Santa Fe National Forest Management plan to allow for a utility corridor through the Caja.

James is skeptical of the legal process, which involves many federal agencies – including the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, and the NNSA.

“If it’s being followed, it’s being followed very minimally,” James said.

Specifically, James points to several laws like the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA and the National Historic Preservation Act.

The NEPA process begins when a federal agency develops a proposal to take a major federal action. It’s meant to gauge whether the government needs to analyze the impacts it may or may not have on the environment.

But as of right now, the impacts to cultural and historical sites are still missing. James said the Pueblo of Tesuque was notified right before Christmas that they would get it at a “later date,” but there was no specific date or timeline.

“This is not a comprehensive report or environmental assessment draft that any of us can look at, not just the Pueblos, but the public as well," James said. "That’s a little strange.”

The labs could go beyond the NEPA process and provide a full-blown environmental impact statement to take a deep dive into the project’s consequences. But in its draft assessment, LANL said there’s no need.

This all follows criticism from locals, environmental groups and New Mexico’s Congressional delegation when the agency decided to hold a short, 30-day comment period over the winter holidays.

Then, after the fierce backlash, a second, longer 60-day comment period was opened at the beginning of February.

In a response emailed to KUNM, LANL wrote: “NNSA is committed to engaging the public and tribal governments on this project through a clear and deliberate process.”

The NNSA said the proposed Caja project would follow an already existing transmission line dubbed the Reeves line.

However, it’s a bit more complicated.

Andrew Black is the founder of Earth Keepers 360, a faith-based environmental advocacy organization. He’s been fighting this proposal since its inception.

“You're creating a massive disturbance on the landscape that's going from a couple 100 feet to hundreds of feet, as it widens out that transmission corridor, you're basically creating what can ultimately become a virtual barrier to wildlife movement and connectivity across the landscape," Black said.

The current plan would build 17 new towers right next to the old line, with the addition of completely new infrastructure like roads, for example.

In addition to the two existing lines in the area – the Norton Substation, and the Reeves in the far West – the proposal would also establish a third and separate transmission utility corridor dissecting the Caja Del Rio from East to West. There, towers will be installed every 800 feet. The exact number is currently in the air.

When asked about the towers, LANL wrote in an email: “The proposed transmission line will follow existing roads to the maximum extent practicable, as to minimize the addition of access routes for maintenance and which would comply with Santa Fe National Forest Travel Management Plan requirements. The location of these wooden transmission structures, temporary roads, and new permanent roads will avoid placement within stream crossings, El Camino Real National Historic Trail, and any cultural resources.”

But Black said the process has been rushed from the get-go, and he wants LANL to not just assess the environment, but understand the impacts the line will have on the wildlife, water and culture.

“We are calling on LANL, who is made up of world-class scientists, to come up with world class solutions and come up with a better proposal than this,” Black added.

As it turns out, there are ways to avoid building a new transmission line. This includes establishing a microgrid, upscaling renewable energy and simply updating the lab’s technological capabilities.

Kerinia Cusick is the board vice president for the Center for Renewable Integration, a non-profit energy think tank working to find policy solutions that advance clean energy.

Cusick said it’s fairly normal for projects like these to push any sort of environmental impacts to the side.

“That gets considered very late in the process, and often the project is so baked, that the only thing that can be done is to just simply kill it, right?” 

Cusick said that the cheapest way to build a transmission line is to make it as short as possible as the crow flies. But when public and protected lands are at stake, it may be worth looking at upgrading the existing transmission.

“That's broadly referred to as reconductoring,” Cusick said. “You can significantly increase the amount of power by basically just putting bigger, thicker, fatter transmission lines.” 

Cusick imagines the lab could better utilize distributed solar to meet energy needs, combined with the use of uninterruptible battery supply systems. According to LANL, its purchased electricity was 31 percent carbon pollution-free for FY 2023.

“But rarely do you find transmission planners looking at it on a holistic basis," Cusick said. "They just look at it on a single project basis.”

So, as America’s infrastructure starts to age, and federal agencies face increasing pressure to reduce their impacts on our planet, Cusick stresses the solution isn’t to just stop the construction of transmission line projects all together, but to establish trust and to find creative ways to meet our ever-growing energy needs.

A public meeting to discuss the proposal will be held on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m., at the Santa Fe Community College, Jemez Room, 6401 Richards Avenue, Santa Fe, N.M. 87508. 

Energy transmission, National Nuclear Security Administration, Caja del Rio plateau