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McMillian's remarks need clarification

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By Greg Mello

Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Charlie McMillan’s April 9 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee regarding plutonium infrastructure and pit production, summarized by the Los Alamos Monitor on April 18, contained errors, lacked context and should be clarified.
McMillan’s remarks create the impression that a) it is necessary to build expensive new pit production facilities at LANL sooner rather than later (or never), and b) LANL should create all, not just some, of the analytical chemistry (AC) necessary for large pit production campaigns. In McMillan’s view, NNSA should ignore existing plutonium labs elsewhere in the nuclear weapons complex, which might provide cost-effective expansion space if needed, in favor of building additional new space at LANL.
McMillan exaggerates the risk of shipping very small analytical chemistry (AC) samples of plutonium to other sites, and assumes shipment would be done through commercial vendors. Such shipments are routine today and believed safe. Risks could be mitigated further if desired, and in any case small shipments need not be done (and have not always been done) commercially.
McMillan exaggerates the risk of any delays attendant on such shipments, which could be and are done overnight. The analyses in question are confirmatory and not on the critical path.
No one has disputed the need to retain AC capabilities at LANL. The question is how much capacity should be built at LANL for a large-scale production mission that may not materialize, or whether existing facilities elsewhere can provide added capacity if necessary.
McMillan coyly says the subcommittee “may likely hear” that the pit production schedule has been delayed. Here, McMillan attempts to overturn decisions already made by the military, the Department of Energy, and the National Nuclear Security Administration as well as the White House, which postpone initiation of stockpile pit production until the second half of the 2020’s.
Most unusually, McMillan takes issue with a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on pit production infrastructure, prepared over the course of a year with the close involvement of McMillan’s own staff. The report makes no recommendations, but does lay out options that could save time, money and reduce program risk — options that do not require large construction projects. There are other obvious options the report does not consider; the author limited his analysis to the highest capacity case and assumed that capacity would need to be in-place and ready to go, rather than put in place over a relatively short time by reprioritizing missions and switching out equipment in existing facilities at LANL and elsewhere.
McMillan mischaracterizes one option in that report, which would provide AC services by “massive” upgrades to the Radiological, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB) to create a “Hazard Category [HC] II” facility. In fact only a HC III facility is needed, containing far less plutonium, and it is not known if modifications would be required at all. While LANL’s analysis (supplied to CRS) suggests use of RLUOB as-is for AC would be far safer than DOE guidance under worst-case scenarios, we do not believe such RLUOB modification is necessary or desirable. It is also not at present legal, we believe. Nevertheless it should not be misrepresented, as was done. However “massive” an effort it might seem, it would be much less “massive” than designing and building new underground “modules.”
Another problem in McMillan’s testimony is the claim that building these modules would somehow extend the life of the existing plutonium facility, indeed by “several decades,” presumably by off-loading some dangerous operations to these specialized underground buildings. But the hazard to workers in PF-4 depends on how PF-4 is managed and whether appropriate maintenance is done there, and reinvestment made — not on the presence or absence of any new facilities nearby.
These are some of the more superficial problems with McMillan’s testimony, as we see them.
There are deeper questions raised by his testimony, however, which I would like to take up in a second column if possible.