CMRR Rad-Lab is up

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Technical issues and political implications aired at meeting

By Roger Snodgrass

Los Alamos National Laboratory’s projected Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility is still very much alive, despite obstacles that line its way to an uncertain future.

Another in a series of peaceful, court-imposed meetings Wednesday night brought together officials in charge of LANL’s CMRR facility and a group of “interested parties,” among other members of the public.

It was the eighth encounter between representatives of seven non-governmental organizations on one side and the laboratory and its federal sponsors, including the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) on the other.

Construction is now substantially completed on the smaller of the two buildings planned for the facility. Known as the Radiological Lab Utility Office Building, or Rad  Lab, for short, the building has a total cost, including equipment of $199.4 million.

A second phase of the project, the much larger and more expensive Nuclear Facility is still in the design phase, with key decisions awaiting a major policy review, known as the Nuclear Posture Review, now expected in February 2010.

CMRR project leaders reported many signs of vitality and progress, including successful completion of two congressionally mandated hurdles, which has triggered release of $47 million for the current phase of the project. Congress had withheld the money, pending high level certifications by NNSA and the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board.

Both documents were delivered on Sept. 14, with barely two weeks remaining in the fiscal year.

CMRR Division Leader Rick Holmes gave the lab’s presentation, acknowledging that the additional review process had been useful.

“We got a lot of hard questions by smart people,” he said. “There are a lot of things we have done to make improvements.” Among them, he said, the structural design and the seismic precautions had been strengthened, columns were thicker, floors reinforced and the underlying soil would be treated to add stability to poor foundational footing in the known earthquake zone.

Despite the questions that have been raised about the potential for seismic events at the construction site, he said. “The depth of our safety analysis is extremely defensible.”

The DNFSB finding on the seismic risk concluded that “the CMRR Project team has now developed an acceptable understanding of the structural behavior of the Nuclear Facility that includes revising the structural design process to include the development of a more detailed structural analysis.”

While the board has provisionally closed out its concerns, it also declared in its report to Congress that it will continue to review the design progression and will “reopen issues” if commitment that have been made by NNSA are not properly met during the final design.”

Holmes said the design phase will proceed on the nuclear facility, but the project awaits word on whether to “stop, don’t stop or go faster.”

Speaking for the “interested parties,” who were granted standing in the public participation process through the legal settlement, Scott Kovak of Nuclear Watch New reviewed the design and budget process for the project, noting that the early estimates for total costs had been $350-500 million, compared to the current estimate of more than $2 billion.

“Two billion is an unknown number,” he said. “The actual project cost is an unknown number.”

Given the original linkage of the facility with the planned production of large numbers of plutonium pits, or triggers for nuclear weapons, critics of the project have also been concerned that the project size is now excessive.

Kovac quoted from the Senate Authorization Committee Report that said the appropriate size of the facility was still one of the “significant unresolved issues.”

“The Nuclear Facility is not needed for less than 20 pits per year,” he said, which is more than are currently planned, “but the design work continues.”

In conclusion, Kovak quoted from President Obama’s address to the United Nations General Assembly earlier in the day.

“We will complete a Nuclear Posture Review,” Obama said, “that opens the door to deeper cuts and reduces the role of nuclear weapons.”