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The Government Accountability Office weighed in on the deferred Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement project this week and according to its report, costs will escalate even more if the Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration decide to proceed with the project down the road.
According to its most recent estimates prepared in April 2010, NNSA determined that the CMRR will cost between $3.7 billion and $5.8 billion — nearly a six-fold increase from the initial estimate.
Construction has also been repeatedly delayed and, in February, after GAO provided its draft report to NNSA for comment, NNSA decided to defer CMRR construction by at least an additional five years, bringing the total delay to between eight and 12 years from NNSA’s original plans.
The report states that infrastructure-related design changes and longer-than-expected overall project duration contributed to these cost increases and delays.
So what does the GAO recommend?
“GAO is making recommendations to improve CMRR’s schedule risk analysis and to conduct an assessment of plutonium research needs,” the report stated. “NNSA agreed with GAO’s recommendations to assess plutonium research needs, but disagreed that its schedule risk analysis should be revised, citing its recent decision to defer the project. GAO clarified the recommendation to specify that NNSA should take action when it resumes the project.”
Here were the recommendations:
• Incorporate all key risks identified by CMRR project officials into the project’s schedule risk analysis and ensure that his information is then used to update schedule contingency estimates.
• Conduct a comprehensive assessment of needed plutonium-related research, storage and instrumental testing needs for nuclear weapons stockpile activities as well as other missions being conducted at other NNSA and DOE facilities.
• Report to Congress detailing any modification to existing or planned facilities or any new facilities that will be needed to support plutonium-related research, storage and environmental testing needs for nuclear weapons stockpile activities as well as other missions conducted by the NNSA and DOE.
The NNSA agreed to two of the three recommendations. It was the first one it disagreed with.
In its response, NNSA said, “Given changes to the CMRR-NF execution strategy resulting from the FY2013 budget request, it would not be prudent to spend project money to update the project’s schedule when construction of the facility is deferred for at least five years. Near-term design efforts with focus on closing out the current design, any future efforts will require updated cost and schedule estimates.”
As far as the second recommendation, NNSA agreed in principle to it.
“The NNSA is conducting additional analysis to determine the most effective way to provide analytical chemistry, materials characterization and storage capabilities originally slated for the CMRR-NF through the use of existing infrastructure,” the report read.
And with the third recommendation, NNSA said in the report it would continue to interface with Congress regarding its plutonium strategy.
In the report, GAO reviewed the NNSA’s April 2010 cost and schedule estimates for CMRR found that the estimates were generally well prepared, but important weaknesses remained.
“For example, a high-quality schedule requires a schedule risk analysis that incorporates known risks to predict the level of confidence in meeting a project’s completion date and the amount of contingency time needed to cover unexpected delays,” the report states. “CMRR project officials identified hundreds of risks to the project, but GAO found that these risks were not used in preparing a schedule risk analysis. As a result of these weaknesses, NNSA cannot be fully confident, once it decides to resume the CMRR project, that the project will be completed on time and within estimated costs.”
According to the report, NNSA considered several options to preserve its plutonium-related research capabilities in its decision to build CMRR at Los Alamos.
NNSA assessed three different sizes for a new facility — 22,500, 31,500 and 40,500 square feet. In 2004, NNSA chose the smallest option. NNSA officials stated that cost was the primary driver of the decision, but that building a smaller facility would result in trade-offs, including the elimination of contingency space.
In the end, NNSA decided to build a minimally sized CMRR facility at Los Alamos with a broad suite of capabilities to meet nuclear weapons stockpile needs over the long-term. These capabilities would also be used to support plutonium-related research needs of other departmental missions.
NNSA’s plans to construct CMRR focused on meeting nuclear weapons stockpile requirements, but CMRR may not meet all stockpile and other plutonium-related research needs. NNSA analyzed data on past workload and the expected need for new weapon components to help ensure CMRR’s design included the necessary plutonium-related research capabilities for maintaining the safety and reliability of the nuclear stockpile. However, some plutonium research, storage and environmental testing capabilities that exist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory may no longer be available after NNSA consolidates plutonium-related research at Los Alamos.
Furthermore, the report stated, NNSA conducts important plutonium-related research in other areas such as homeland security and nuclear nonproliferation, but it has not comprehensively analyzed plutonium research and storage needs of these other programs outside of its nuclear weapons stockpile work and therefore cannot be sure that the CMRR plans will effectively accommodate these needs. As a result, expansion of CMRR or construction of more plutonium research and storage facilities at Los Alamos or elsewhere may be needed in the future, potentially further adding to costs.