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The federal agency that oversees the national nuclear weapons complex announced a milestone Thursday in its efforts to transform the sprawling $10-billion-a-year operation into a modern enterprise.
The National Nuclear Security Administration is locked into a static budget for the third year in a row. Congress has not given a financial endorsement to the attempted overhaul and many aspects are disputed as the country prepares for a change at the top.
Thomas D’Agostino, NNSA administrator said he was comfortable about passing the recommendations along to the next administration, partly because of a process of independent analysis that has gone into developing the alternatives.
“These can be politically charged projects,” he said. “I’m not going to rush a decision because it has to be done before Jan. 20.”
The complex transformation plan, formally a Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (SPEIS) assigns Los Alamos National Laboratory primary responsibility for consolidating plutonium research, development and manufacturing capabilities, under a preferred alternative scenario. But what that actually means has been left to future decisions.
D’Agostino said congressional concerns about using pit-making capacity as a bounding criterion was reflected in the document.
Pits are the plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons that currently can only be made at Los Alamos, but how many are needed depends on an overall nuclear strategy that has yet to achieve a national consensus.
Consistent with a recent site-wide environmental impact statement issued Sept. 26, this new programmatic environmental study does yet turn the laboratory into a major nuclear pit production facility, but it is a basis for proceeding with construction on the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility.
D’Agostino said the current level of production capacity at Los Alamos, offers a perfect range, because it means very little change in the infrastructure, including the need to get out of an ancient structure and into a new one.
“Even if we had zero pits, the country still has to have the ability to do research on plutonium and nuclear forensics,” among other critical nuclear capabilities, he said. “Even if we had to maintain just one weapon, we still want to get the plutonium out of the Livermore valley.”
The environmental study lays out the principal alternatives for consolidating nuclear materials and activities and reducing the footprint of eight major facilities across the country, including Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories, where plutonium reductions have already taken place.
“The world is changing and we are changing along with it,” D’Agostino said. “The number of U.S. nuclear weapons is shrinking, budgets are flat or declining, and we need a smaller, more secure, more efficient infrastructure that reflects these realities…”
The preferred alternative proposes a Consolidated Plutonium Center (CPC) for long-term plutonium operations, but leaves the location and level of new construction open.
The CPC could either be a completely new configuration of buildings at Los Alamos, Nevada Test Site, Pantex in Texas, Savannah River Site in South Carolina, or Y-12 in Tennessee; or an upgrade of existing and planned facilities at Los Alamos or planned facilities at Savannah River.
“NNSA would not make a decision as to a specific location at any site for a new CPC based on this SPEIS; specific locations would be evaluated in a future NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) review for the site selected if required,” the document states.
A footnote indicates that a specific location has been evaluated at Los Alamos in lab’s recently completed site-wide environmental statement.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., praised NNSA for “decoupling” the issue of pit production from the construction of the CMRR building
“It is important to understand that the CMRR nuclear facility is not a pit production facility. Instead, it will support a broad range of national security missions, ranging from providing power for satellites to nuclear forensics,” he said.
But the Senator also criticized the NNSA for failing to clearly delineate a “science capacity mission for the nuclear weapons labs.”
“In my view, it is a shortsighted decision that ignores the fact that strong science and engineering missions are important to attracting the best minds to work within the complex," Domenici said.
An executive summary of the SPEIS is available at http://www.nnsa.energy.gov/defense_programs/documents/Final_SPEIS_Summar...
The full SPEIS should be available after Oct. 24. Decisions based on that document can be made 30 days after that.