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Los Alamos National Laboratory director Charlie McMillan was in Washington last week to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.
McMillan provided an update on recent Los Alamos technical and scientific achievements; the proposed plutonium strategy under evaluation in numerous national security circles; and, Los Alamos budget realities that pose challenges to meeting mission requirements.
The following came from the Senate website and this was McMillan’s written testimony to the subcommittee.
In his testimony, McMillan addressed a recent Pit Production report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which was written by Jonathan Medalia.
Medalia received the help of Brett Kniss, Drew Kornreich, and Amy Wong, of Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Greg Mello and Trish Williams-Mello of Los Alamos Study Group in drafting the report.
“Many of the ideas in the report were originally contemplated by lab staff as they began to look at alternatives to CMRR‐NF,” McMillan said. “While the report is comprehensive, it fails to recognize many of the risks and challenges certain options would face.”
McMillan said the report envisions sending analytical and materials chemistry work that supports the production mission, around the complex to take advantage of existing capabilities.
“This is an approach that we still believe to be valid should we need some type of bridging capability. However, in the long‐term, there will be increased risk by the additional shipments of samples through commercial shipping vendors, and increased risk in the timeliness of completing the work. In our expert opinion, the country needs analytical and materials chemistry capabilities to reside at the same place where pits are produced,” he wrote.
According to the written testimony, the NNSA and laboratory’s Plutonium Strategy plan does not envision the kind of massive upgrade or legislative acceptance of much greater risk contemplated by the CRS report.
The report suggests that Los Alamos could somehow massively upgrade the RLUOB facility to a Hazard Category III facility. Nuclear facilities are designed from the ground up for their intended purpose. RLUOB was designed as a radiological facility, not a Hazard Category III facility.
“Under the CRS upgrade scenario, the proposal would necessitate improvements in security, seismic reinforcement, air handling, fire suppression, and other systems that were not designed to nuclear facility standards, and therefore are unable to ultimately address the nuclear safety basis requirements. I believe that Los Alamos has the most credible and cost- effective path forward that could potentially be completed to meet the proposed 2019 closure timelines for the CMR Facility,” he wrote.
McMillan then addressed one more issue related to the lab’s plutonium mission.
“With the future Life Extension Programs (LEP) schedule delayed, you will likely hear that the need to produce pits is no longer on the same timeframe. I think it would be a mistake for the country’s pit production capabilities to be tied to the future of any one‐weapon system. In my opinion, it is critical that our country maintain this capability and continue to develop a stable and responsive pit production infrastructure,” he wrote.
“We need to heed past lessons learned: when this capability was incapacitated for a short period, then exorbitant time, energy, and money was spent to bring it back on line when the country was again in need. This will always be a cornerstone capability, no matter the weapons modernization strategy of the time.
“Regardless of the nuclear weapons systems the United States decides to move forward with or when, if we do not rejuvenate our limited plutonium capabilities, we will have few options going forward. This scenario would be particularly troubling should an unforeseen problem emerge in our existing systems or if there was a dramatic technological or geopolitical surprise with another nuclear armed country.
“Because of delays in project start‐up since the decision to defer CMRR‐NF, I am concerned that we will miss the target date to terminate program operations in CMR by 2019. Should we be forced to terminate CMR operations before they can be transferred to CMRR‐RLUOB and PF‐4, our ability to execute plutonium missions will be jeopardized.”
On Sunday, McMillan addresses the lab’s budget situation.