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As a key Congressional committee met to discuss next year’s budget for the nuclear weapons complex, a high priority project for Los Alamos National Laboratory was one of several big ticket items that shared the spotlight.
LANL has a demonstrable need to get out of its obsolete, circa 1952, Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) facility and wants to relocate its capabilities to a brand new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR).
But the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development subcommittee has been unwilling to cover the cost, which has multiplied several times and ballooned to $2.6 billion according to current estimates.
The deliberations take place against a backdrop of a critically depressed economy and huge budget deficits.
Laboratory Fellow David Clark is one of many LANL administrators with a stake in the outcome. He is the director of the Seaborg Institute, which coordinates actinide science and education at the lab.
Actinide science focuses on 15 radioactive heavy elements in the periodic table from actinium to lawrencium and including uranium and plutonium. Clark worked in the CMR building in the 90s.
“It was good news to all of us when we heard we might get a modern facility to replace it,” he recalled. Since then he has been a participant in designing the new CMRR facility, where he hopes the institute will have a laboratory some day.
Plans first developed around the question of what was reasonably needed to take the place of the CMR in the modern era. Since then, Clark said, speaking for himself, the pressure has been “to shrink it down.”
The square-foot for square-foot swap once hoped for between the old building and the two new replacement buildings has been deemed “unaffordable.”
Meanwhile safety and security demands and the transformation process under way in the nuclear weapons complex have all forced back-to-the-drawing-board revisions that have added substantially to the costs and the role of the facility.
Among other pressures, Los Alamos has been designated as the site where plutonium is supposed to be consolidated for the nuclear weapons complex. Large, secure, earthquake-proof vaults are built into the Nuclear Facility (NF), the largest and most expensive of the two buildings that make up the CMRR. The NF is still unfunded beyond the design phase.
The House appropriations subcommittee was instrumental in cutting and finally zeroing out funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which was once of great moment to the laboratory’s sponsors and was used to justify CMRR.
But it is now clear that the new nuclear pits that LANL would have been expected to produce next door in LANL’s Plutonium Facility for those weapons won’t be on order any time soon.
Clark’s personal opinion is that some members of Congress and the public in general are confused about the purpose of the CMRR.
“The myth that we’re going to build pits in the CMRR is so far from the truth,” he said.
Laboratory officials have lately re-emphasized the traditional bread-and-butter operations of the facility. The basic certification work on the nuclear stockpile will continue, along with all the other work that has been going on in the old facility, including nuclear forensics, safeguards, non-proliferation, counter-terrorism and environmental and waste management.
New operations transferring in as the national nuclear weapons complex reduces its footprint place ever greater demands on the space.
“Just to clarify,” said NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino in his appropriation subcommittee testimony, “we’re not building pits in the nuclear facility.”
In recent years, decisions made at the House subcommittee level have been routinely approved up the ladder by the full committee and the full House. This is probably why Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., called the hearing “the most important hearing this committee is going to have this year.”
Wamp is one of two representatives on the committee from Tennessee who were supportive of their own local mega-project at the Y-12 National Security Complex near Oak Ridge.
The Uranium Processing Facility is also in the big-ticket range and Wamp was able to say that he was hearing a consensus favoring the UPF, “only streamlined.”
“What are ways to streamline CMRR?” he asked.
Two of the panelists took a shot at the question.
Everett Beckner, former Deputy Administrator, Defense Programs at NNSA suggested more belt-tightening. “If we work harder on restricting our own ambitions, we can keep these things a little smaller than they otherwise might become,” he said.
Richard Garwin, former chairman of the State Department Arms Control and Nonproliferation Advisory Board and a JASON consultant, was more critical.
Of the two buildings, Garwin noted that the research laboratory was pretty well constructed.
“I would suggest doing without the nuclear facility,” he said bluntly. Garwin firmly supported the need to retain and attract a highly qualified workforce for the weapons complex, but he also thinks that a rapid reduction in the nuclear weapons stockpile could have a significant impact on other needs. He said he would, as an alternative, look at expanding TA-55.
One of D’Agostino’s points, however, was that the current plan provided for minimum needs regardless of scale.
“It’s extremely important to recognize and take into account that neither our workforce numbers, nor the square footage of our facilities scale linearly with the size of the stockpile,” he said.
“Establishing a minimum capability to support a greatly reduced stockpile enabled by its very existence in a modern facility a sufficient minimum capability to support the likely range of future stockpile scenarios.”
Range of conclusions
Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group who attended the hearings and talked to a number of officials before and afterward, said he could not tell which way the committee might go.
“There’s a lot of momentum in the NNSA planning process,” he said. “These things were planned six years ago and that reflects the slow time constant in nuclear policy generally.
There seems to be a widely held recognition that the infrastructure budget for NNSA is not fully realistic. Whether new money will be discovered or somebody will rob Peter to pay Paul, or whether ambitions will be downscaled, I don’t know.”
In his opening statement, subcommittee chairman, Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind. noted the process was “circumscribed” by the Presidential transition and the fact that a number of studies, like the Nuclear Posture Review, would not be completed until early next year.
“We can say with confidence that President Obama’s stockpile plan will be different from that we see today,” he said.
Regardless of the mission, Clark said, the replacement facility is necessary.
“For all the new missions, whether it is getting rid of the weapons, developing alternative energy or getting rid of the waste, we still need new facilities to do it. We need an infrastructure to work in. There’s plutonium out there. We’ve got to deal with that.”
The committee hearing on Tuesday was webcast by the House Appropriations Committee. The written testimony by the panel members is available on the subcommittee website, http://appropriations.house.gov/Subcommittees/sub_ew.shtml/