CMRR to be deferred five years

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Lab: Critics, though, believe this marks the end of the project

By John Severance

The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos National Laboratory will be deferred for at least five years, according to President Obama’s FY 2013 Budget request to Congress Monday.

According to the budget request, “The Administration proposes deferring the construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility and meeting plutonium requirements by using existing facilities in the nuclear complex.”

And what was the justification?

“The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has designed CMRR for the following stockpile missions:  plutonium chemistry; plutonium physics; and the storage of special nuclear materials. Construction has not begun on the nuclear facility.  NNSA has determined in consultation with the national laboratories that existing infrastructure in the nuclear complex has the inherent capacity to provide adequate support for these missions,” the report said.

“Therefore, NNSA proposes deferring CMRR construction for at least five years.  Studies are ongoing to determine long-term requirements.  Instead of CMRR, NNSA will modify existing facilities and relocate some nuclear materials. Estimated cost avoidance from 2013 to 2017 totals approximately $1.8 billion.”

The report said the NNSA will maximize use of the recently constructed Radiological Laboratory and Utility Office Building that will be fully equipped in April 2012, approximately one year ahead of schedule. And NNSA also has options to share workload between other existing plutonium-capable facilities at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories.

“In place of CMRR for the storage of special nuclear materials, the budget includes $35 million to accelerate actions that process, package, and dispose of excess nuclear material and reduce material at risk in the plutonium facility at Los Alamos.  If additional storage is needed, NNSA can stage plutonium for future program use in the Device Assembly Facility in Nevada. 

“The Office of Secure Transportation Asset will execute shipments as needed,” the report added.
Critics, however, were quick to point out that it probably is the end of the CMRR project.

“It’s very good news,” said Greg Mello, director of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group. “And it is part of a wider reassessment of what is truly necessary in the nuclear weapons budgets in both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense.”

Jay Coghlan, Nuclear Watch New Mexico Director said, ìNow that the CMRR Nuclear Facility has been zeroed out, our New Mexican Congressional delegation and state and local elected officials should be pushing hard for comprehensive cleanup at the lab. That will create 100’s of desperately-needed jobs and at the same time protect our scarce, precious groundwater and the Rio Grande. That’s in stark contrast to unneeded nuclear weapons programs that produce more radioactive and hazardous wastes and creates few if any new jobs.

National Nuclear Security Administration officials emphasized the project — already plagued by years of cost overruns and delays — was delayed, not cancelled, because of a tough fiscal environment. Instead, the administration’s budget funds a separate uranium facility in Tennessee.

With last year’s budget cutting mandate from Congress, many expected only one of the two projects could be funded this year.

Thom D’Agostino from NNSA said in a conference call with reporters Monday that “we are not canceling the project. We are deferring the project for five years. It’s a deferral.”

Energy Secretary Steven Chu told reporters in Washington that the Department of Energy’s decision to abandon – at least for five years – the plutonium complex proposed for Los Alamos National Laboratory came down to simple economics.

Faced with escalating costs for two proposed multibillion-dollar nuclear weapons-related projects, one in Tennessee and the second at Los Alamos, the National Nuclear Security Administration was forced to choose. It chose the facility in Tennessee.

“Within these budget realities it was very clear we couldn’t do both needs at the same time so we addressed the one that we thought was most critical,” Chu told the Albuquerque Journal.   
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) added, “For years, we have been told the CMRR nuclear facility was necessary.  Now we’re being told there may be alternatives.  I look forward to hearing more from the administration about this change in plans,” Bingaman said.  

Lab officials have for years contended CMRR 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.

While much of the work is classified, they said the lab’s mission was 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 pits that power nuclear weapons.

Critics, however, called it an effort by the DOE and NNSA to escalate the production of new nuclear weapons. And they questioned the wisdom of continuing with the project after recent seismic studies showed a higher than previously known risk for a major earthquake in the area.

The Obama administration said Monday that the NNSA “has determined in consultation with the national laboratories that existing infrastructure in the nuclear complex has the inherent capacity to provide adequate support for these missions.”

Mello said that’s exactly what he has been arguing in two lawsuits that sought to halt construction of CMRR, contending the federal government had refused to look at alternatives despite increased seismic threats that sent the price tag soaring.

“They are choosing different alternatives for CMRR’s missions — in fact, the very same alternatives we recommended,” he said.

Mello said the decision will likely have little impact long-term on Los Alamos.

“It will mean that the CMRR construction jobs are not going to happen,” he said. “It will mean that some engineers will have to find some other work. ... But they are perfectly capable of continuing on and on and on.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. The local reaction to the CMRR Project will be in Wednesday’s Los Alamos Monitor.