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CMRR project update leaves unanswered questions

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By Roger Snodgrass

A much-discussed topic in recent days and months, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility, had another public airing Tuesday night.This time the semiannual meeting was at Fuller Lodge. About 30 people attended, mostly employees of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the Department of Energy (DOE), as well as others affiliated with the project, but also several representatives of the “interested parties,” the seven public interest groups named in a legal settlement in September 2005.By the end of the evening, members of the “interested parties” expressed disappointment that the four pages of questions they had prepared and submitted well in advance were not more fully answered during the two-hour meeting.The agreement under the auspices of the state environmental department spelled out the terms by which an air-quality permit was granted to the first two phases of the CMRR project, which have to do with the Radiological Laboratory/Utility Office Building (RLUOB) the smaller of the two buildings under construction and its utility area.RLUOB has a projected cost of $164 million and aims for occupancy and operations in 2010.Tom Whitacre of the DOE site office gave a project overview of the RLUOB construction, now considered 40-percent complete, with an emphasis on progress during the fall and winter seasons. Work on the structural steel columns that will support the top three floors has now started at the site.Further attention was given to describing the quality assurance program on the project in response to questions at the last meeting.The air-quality permit for the second building, the far more complex Nuclear Facility (NF), would normally be submitted about a year before the start of construction, according to Bill Blankenship, LANL’s air quality official on the project.Rick Holmes, who heads the CMRR project for LANL said the schedule for construction of the NF are in the 2010-2016 time frame. He said the $74.5 million received for the RLUOB project this year would fund this year’s work, purchase and install equipment, and underwrite the final design authorization on the NF. He said it was “just decided” to propose a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) goal for the NF.The RLUOB already has a goal of a silver certification under the Green Building Rating System, but the proposal for the NF would be a first for a major nuclear facility.Holmes said it was “a very big thing.”CMRR is many things to many people, as the wide-ranging yet legally constrained discussion attested. For the laboratory, CMRR is the long-awaited replacement to its aging predecessor, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) facility, more than 50 years old, virtually on life-support and with a safety authorization basis set to expire in 2010.For laboratory critics, including the parties to the air quality permit settlement, the CMRR is at the front of a larger issue about whether the country will move toward or away from international agreements on nuclear disarmament.Another $100 million is included in the administration’s budget for the CMRR project this year. A clear-cut success or failure of that piece of the appropriations process may mark a decisive moment for the larger project.For the DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration, the CMRR is a key facility in a long-playing effort to transform the nuclear weapons complex into what they have envisioned as a smaller, safer, more efficient and sustainable formation.A stream of visitors – from Congress and DOE and lately tours of community leaders – have visited the CMRR construction site in recent weeks as a part of a major public-relations effort by the laboratory in support of the project.Holmes was asked how the budget for the project had grown from $600 million in 2004 to more than $2 billion now.He said the original budget was not updated until 2006, when he began working on the project.“The cost of materials has escalated dramatically,” he said, along with quantity of materials and normal productivity increases. A response to preliminary seismic reports, which increased precautionary building standards by 50 percent, meant that walls, once specified to be 3 feet thick are now 4.5 feet, he said.The matter of the seismic report, which has indicated a greater earthquake risk at the site than had been foreseen, was supposed to be a major topic at the meeting. At the previous meeting, an engineering report and a hazard report were said to have been completed and were promised for the next meeting.But Steve Fong, the federal project director of the CMRR said the document had been delayed again and now would not be ready until later in the spring, which seemed to indicate it would not be available for discussion for another six months.Joni Arends, of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety,  provided a reminder of the legal framework under which the meeting was taking place. She insisted on a more definite plan than the vague promise to answer still-unanswered questions that the “interested parties” had submitted before this meeting.“I would like the questions to be answered within 30 days,” she said. “We were asked to submit (our questions) 30 days in advance of these meetings.”Fong said he would try to make the date for the next meeting a little earlier.