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GAO wants NNSA to think long-term on plutonium

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Lab > Watchdog group provides a number of recommendations

The Government Accountability Office’s latest report, which was released two weeks ago, urges the National Nuclear Security Administration to think long-term when it comes to a plutonium strategy.

In 2012, the Los Alamos National Laboratory submitted a report, which analyzed its plutonium options after NNSA deferred the Chemistry Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility for at least five years last year.

According to the study, these options include relocating analytical chemistry and materials characterization capabilities among facilities at LANL, moving some capabilities to facilities at other sites, or some combination of the two.

The GAO report indicated that the lab has put the potential cost to move plutonium capabilities between $480 million and $820 million.

“Such a move, which would involve the expanded use of the recently completed Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building and the lab’s existing Plutonium Facility, would come with several other concerns,” the GAO said.

“Following the study, NNSA tasked the M&O contractor for LANL with assessing the space inside PF-4 to see if it could be repurposed to better support plutonium research for the nuclear weapons program and other mission areas.”

The GAO report said an option being considered is a modular facility concept that could be built in phases to meet additional capacity needs or new mission requirements and to enlist the assistance of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office in carrying out this analysis.
According to NNSA officials, the results are expected in October.

The GAO report, meanwhile, questioned whether the NNSA will “make costly investments in short-term facilities that may ultimately not address its longer-term plutonium research needs,” adding, “It is imperative that NNSA make prudent investments that right-size the solution with the actual and anticipated needs or it may continue to spend significant sums of money with little to show for it.”

The GAO wants DOE and the Department of Defense to combine forces and reassess the plutonium needs of the nation.

The report stated, “To ensure that NNSA’s investments in plutonium research facilities and capabilities result in an operationally effective and affordable solution, we recommend that the Secretary of Energy continue efforts to assess how plutonium research and other capability needs and stockpile requirements have changed, if at all, since the needs were revalidated in 2008, and develop a plan to appropriately meet the nation’s near-term and long-term goals.”

In the report, NNSA’s Cynthia Lersten said the agency agrees with the GAO recommendations as it gets ready for preparations in dealing with the FY15 budget.

Another option the NNSA was weighing involved using other facilities across the country.
GAO did not seem particularly keen on that idea.

“Using facilities at other sites will require time for NNSA to plan for and then transport materials from LANL to facilities at other sites,” the report said. “This in turn could increase the total time needed to complete the analyses for weapon pits.”

Other items of interest in the report:
• As of July 2013, NNSA officials told us that they had not selected any options for meeting the plutonium research needs from 2019 through the late-2020s, although they were exploring improved work processes in analytical chemistry that could potentially enable LANL to support the manufacture of 30 pits per year.
• NNSA officials said that they had not made any decisions on facilities to address longer-term research needs, such as the phased, modular facility NNSA officials are considering.
NNSA officials said planning must begin soon on some longer-term plutonium research facility if it were to be constructed and operational by the late-2020s.
• The April 2012 LANL study also included some discussion of risks to workers.
Although risks to workers and the public exist at PF-4 due to seismic hazards, some additional risks could be posed by the option to use facilities at other sites. Specifically, the study reported that using facilities at other sites for analytical chemistry research increases the handling and shipping of small samples of plutonium, thereby increasing the risk of contamination to workers. The study did not, however, quantify what the risk to workers might be.
• GAO’s conclusion stated that a change in approach from constructing the CMRR nuclear facility, however, raises a number of questions. These include whether NNSA will make costly investments in short-term facilities that may ultimately not address its longer-term plutonium research needs. The report said, “it is imperative that NNSA make prudent investments that right-size the solution with the actual and anticipated needs or it may continue to spend significant sums of money with little to show for it.”
• GAO’s recommendation stipulated that the Secretary of Energy continue efforts to assess how plutonium research and other capability needs and stockpile requirements have changed, if at all, since the needs were revalidated in 2008, and develop a plan to appropriately meet the nation’s near-term and longer-term plutonium needs.