Facility reaches halfway on first phase

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By Roger Snodgrass

The Applicants and Interested Parties went another round Tuesday night on the matter of building the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility.

The Applicants are the Department of Energy and the managers of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Lab officials reported they were about 50 percent finished with the first phase of the project, the $164 million Radiological Laboratory/Utility Office Building (RLUOB).

The Interested Parties are seven public interest groups, who reached a settlement with the Applicants, which was brokered by the New Mexico Environment Department in September 2005. The agreement paved the way for an air quality permit to be granted to the Rad Lab and its utility area in exchange for semiannual informational meetings on the CMRR during the full course of its construction.

The RLUOB is the starting point in the full CMRR project, which is hung up in Congress at the moment, somewhere between a Senate proposal of $125 million and a House proposal of zero dollars. The administration’s request stands at $100 million.

The final phase of the CMRR project involves the Nuclear Facility, an ambitious project for which the budget has not been determined, but estimates have put at $2 billion plus.

Mark Dinehart, the lab’s deputy project director for integrated nuclear planning and Gilbert Drexel, deputy to the laboratory’s CMRR project manager provided presentations on the current status of the project.

Drexel said this year’s budget, after a similar face-off between the House and Senate last year, amounted to $74.5 million. Assuming, as many are these days, that a continuing resolutions is the likely outcome of the election year budget, the same $75 million might be expected to continue into the next fiscal year, except that very little can be counted on.

Additionally, there are other multi-billion-dollar DOE/National Nuclear Security Administration projects in the works with little assurance all can be funded in the budget climate.

The officials said they are prepared for a variety of alternatives, and have accepted the likelihood that the current CMR, which the project is supposed to replace, will have to be reworked for duty beyond its current authorization.

About 30 people attended the meeting, mostly project employees and subject matter experts, as well as a handful of representatives of the interested parties, including Jay Coghlan and Scott Kovac of Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Joni Arends of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety.

While managing to provide a flow of information, the meetings have been and continue to be somewhat contentious at times, with no real definition in the agreement about how they are to be conducted or what constitutes a successful meeting.

According to a new report from the National Research Council, public participation usually improves the quality of environmental decisions, when it is handled effectively.

But when the parties are required by the terms of a legal settlement to engage in periodic encounters, directed by one of the parties, and when there are longstanding conflicts and polarized opinions reflecting deeply rooted, opposing points of view, the best intentions sometimes go astray.

The format for the meeting was described by the organizers as an attempt to provide more time to answer questions. It featured five separate Table Topics and Posters, two more than there were representatives from “interested parties,” who saw the format as an attempt to diffuse the issue and avoid direct public questioning.

When Joni Arends attempted to ask questions during the presentations, a facilitator and presenter cut her off. Answers that were supposed to be provided from the last meeting were not provided.

“When will we get answers to our questions from March?” she asked.