McMillan lays out alternative plutonium strategy

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By The Staff

When lab director Charlie McMillan was in Washington recently, one of the items he addressed with the Senate Armed Forces Subcommittee on strategic forces had to deal with plutonium strategy.

Last year, the Obama administration deferred the CMRR-Nuclear Facility because of escalating costs. And this year, it appears there will be a slowdown in the plutonium acquisition process for the MOX facility in Savannah.

McMillan went into some detail about the CMRR deferment.

“There are many reasons why CMRR was deferred – from the incredibly long time it took to get from planning to design, to the many mission space requirement changes, and continually increasing safety and security requirements. Taken together, these have driven significant cost increases which are difficult to control and have now become common across the country in all of what I call the ‘big-box’ nuclear facilities,” McMillan said.

“No one at Los Alamos was pleased with the decision on deferment; however, this decision created a unique opportunity for us to challenge the requirements that drove the existing design. CMRR was designed to be the classic ‘big box’ nuclear facility – a ‘do it all under one roof’ design. The intersection of the ‘3+2’ strategy that has been developed by the DOD (Department of Defense), the pits that will be required to support that strategy, and the deferred construction on CMRR has forced us to challenge the way we are doing business at Los Alamos today.”

McMillan said that in conjunction with the National Nuclear Security Administration, they are recommending changes in requirements that are opening new options for facility acquisition.

McMillan said the changes should reduce cash flow profiles and extend the lifetime of Plutonium Facility-4 pit production.

“The first change occurred when the NNSA updated the 1992 assessment of the hazards associated with plutonium. This update allows us to increase the amount of plutonium in the newly completed Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building (RLUOB) from 6 grams to 26 grams at the same administrative hazard level. This change in requirement will allow RLUOB to play a much bigger role in our plutonium strategy than previously planned,” McMillan said.

“In the second change, NNSA has agreed to reassess requirements that could allow us to repurpose existing PF-4 lab space. Program requirements tend to follow national priorities that are somewhat cyclical between space exploration, nuclear power and national defense. These program and priority shifts typically occur with a period of a decade or more. Since the formative period of CMRR development in 2003, a decade has elapsed and there are opportunities to realign portions of PF-4 that were in active use by other programs circa 2003.”

McMillan noted that during the Cold War plutonium was scarce and there was a premium on recovering it rather than discarding it. As a result, almost an entire wing of PF-4 is devoted to recovering as much plutonium as possible from the waste stream.

“Paradoxically, in another wing of PF-4 we are converting unneeded plutonium pits into oxide so that it can be burned in reactors to produce electricity; both are using valuable nuclear facility space,” McMillan said.

“Finally, we are working to develop a new modular concept for smaller plutonium facilities that can be “networked” into our existing facilities PF-4 and the RLUOB. I believe that very large construction projects that need huge annual infusions of funding to stay on schedule have become too vulnerable to delays if a budget allocation is missed.

McMillan then pointed out the benefits of switching to the modular approach.

• A shorter acquisition time

• Smaller annual cash flow profile

• Simpler construction of the second and subsequent modules through standardized design.

McMillan concluded his remarks about the alternative plutonium strategy this way.

“We have typically tried to squeeze all of our mission requirements into one ‘big box’ that builds tens of lab modules at the same time in a single complex facility project,” McMillan said. “We see the consequence: no capability until the whole facility is finished. In challenging this concept we believe that the path forward is to build one module at a time, standardize the design of the modules and acquire what we need, when we need it.

“We believe this approach, coupled with the changes to PF-4 and the RLUOB, can be used to meet mission needs as we move into the future. Another concern we had when CMRR was deferred was that it pushed the potential construction period into an overlap with needed PF-4 life extension activities. I believe it would have been extremely costly to simultaneously build two facilities of that magnitude.

“ In our proposal, we examine the possibility of reducing the amount of the high hazard nuclear work in PF-4 by relocating it into the new modules.

“This reduces the risk profile in the older facility while providing lab space for less hazardous missions such as plutonium science. The process of transferring risk out of PF-4 should extend its useful lifetime and avoid a near-erm, expensive replacement project. The result is a win-win situation.”