Feds should stop “Taj Majal”

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By The Staff

Huge investments intended for additional plutonium infrastructure at Los Alamos National Laboratory raise equally big questions. Specifically, will current plans make the best use of the growing billions of dollars now claimed necessary to do the job? Can these enormous costs really be justified?

Or is there already evidence that these projects are simply out of control?

The centerpiece in LANL’s plutonium expansion is the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) project. This project would add two buildings to Technical Area 55, connected by tunnels to the existing main plutonium facility, Building PF-4.

The first of the CMRR buildings is the $363 million Radiological Laboratory, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB). RLUOB includes 19,500 net square feet of new lab space, limited to small quantities of radiological materials. An equipped RLUOB building is expected to be complete in the spring of 2013.  

The second CMRR building, the far grander Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), would house something like a million times more plutonium than the RLUOB. The Administration’s FY2011 budget request estimated the CMRR-NF’s cost at $4.21 billion, including a budgeted $782 million for contingencies.

Total CMRR project costs are now roughly $5.0 billion, including RLUOB, CMRR-NF, and the demolition and disposal (D&D) of the old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) building, previously estimated at about $400 million.

Eight years into the CMRR project, there is as yet no firm budget, schedule, or completed preliminary design for CMRR-NF. In apparent violation of Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) own project management regulations, no such baseline is planned for several more years. Advocates seem to want Congress to be firmly vested in this project before providing any overall commitments to which the agency or its contractors could be held accountable.

The history of cost increments [increases] in this project is hardly reassuring. Sen. Jeff Bingaman first announced the project in 1999. At that time his spokesperson said it “would not be a ‘Taj Mahal’ but a scaled-down, streamlined facility that would meet the needs of the lab at a lower cost than they are met now.”

Just three years after that statement, in 2002 when the project was first submitted to Congress for funding, it was estimated to cost a whopping, if vague, “$350-$500” million.

A year later the sticker cost had gone up by $100 million as internal overhead was added. The next year (2004) the cost remained the same but the nuclear lab space to be provided was cut almost in half. In 2005 projected costs rose to $838 million and in 2005 they were reported as “$745-975” million. By 2008 CMRR-NF alone was going to cost “above” $2 billion, and the whole project, RLUOB and CMR D&D included, was to cost at least $2.6 billion.

Since then total project cost, for a building half the original usable size, has doubled again to about $5 billion. Thus in eight years projected CMRR costs have risen a full order of magnitude. The estimated final completion date has meanwhile slipped more than a decade, from 2011 to 2022.

CMRR has already become the largest public project in New Mexico history by roughly a factor of ten. The state’s largest public works project to date is the MESA facility at Sandia National Laboratories, completed in 2008 at a cost of $517 M. The CMRR project, should it proceed through Nuclear Facility construction, will cost roughly ten times that much.

Justifying these kinds of open-ended, astronomical costs should require a solid rationale that is plain to see and easy to grasp. But the numbers have been driven up by shifting national priorities, unfortunate and surprising circumstances and previous mistakes.

The most recent boost came from premiums associated with soaring seismic safety costs.

A high-risk nuclear building containing large amounts of plutonium can’t just sit on a flimsy layer of soft tuff in an active earthquake zone, so current plans dictate replacing the soft tuff with some 225,000 cubic yards of lean concrete beneath the building, which itself will require some 130,000 cubic yards of concrete. Much, quite possibly all, of the sand and gravel for this concrete, along with the Portland cement, must be trucked up the Hill. If it is all brought in, that’s about 24,000 heavy truck trips, just for the concrete.  

That kind of traffic, not to mention the long term overhead and environmental risks of the plutonium mission itself, adds to the increasing questions about this heavy expense.  

The answers never quite stack up.

By Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group and Paul Gessing of the Rio Grande Foundation. The Los Alamos Study Group is an Albuquerque-based think tank and advocacy organization primarily devoted to nuclear weapons and energy policy issues. Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.