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Plutonium strategy comes to forefront

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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 our mission requirements.
The following came from the Senate website and this was McMillan’s written testimony to the subcommittee.
After citing the lab’s accomplishments in the past year, McMillan turned his attention to an alternative plutonium strategy.
McMillan reminded the subcommittee that he had outlined the structure of an alternative strategy after it was determined the Chemistry Metallurgy Research Replacement‐Nuclear Facility (CMRR‐NF) would be scrapped for the time being.
“Over the past year, we have worked hard to turn these ideas into a plan,” McMillan said. “The strategy proposes a three‐phased approach. The phased approach is designed to manage both safety and programmatic risk in the near, mid- and longer-term timeframe and to address risks in the timeworn Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) Facility and Plutonium Facility (PF‐4) respectively.
“I believe the current plan, if fully implemented, will both preserve our critical plutonium capabilities once the CMR building is finally shuttered, and it will greatly extend the life of our existing Plutonium processing capability at Technical Area (TA)‐55. This plan is effective, efficient, and timely, and is the best fiscal solution for this country.”
McMillan said it was crucial to get more out of the existing facilities and and breaking up new construction projects into small achievable pieces, reduces many of the problems associated with prior “big box” nuclear construction projects. Issues such as large annual funding requirements and decades‐long acquisition periods will be scaled down to manageable levels and will be adaptable to future changes in requirements.
McMillan said there are three key elements of the current plan involve modifying CMRR‐Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building (RLUOB) “so we can slightly increase the amount of material in the facility per revised guidance, while keeping it as a radiological facility.
“The ability to increase the materials from about the mass of one nickel’s worth of weapons grade material, to about two nickels’ worth of mass may not sound like much, but it is significant. We are currently in the process of outfitting RLUOB with equipment that will enable us to take advantage of the increased material allowed in the building.
“However, I believe that RLUOB is not a silver bullet because we still must have the capability to handle kilograms of material not just the gram quantities currently allowed at the facility. The requirements lead us into our proposed Phase II recommendation which is to better utilize our existing high hazard nuclear space in PF‐4.”
McMillan said reconfiguring PF‐4 would allow the lab to accommodate the analytical and materials chemistry capabilities that cannot be transferred to the CMRR‐RLUOB.
McMillan said the lab has reclaimed about 10 percent of lab space in PF-4 after the decision was made to defer CMRR-NF.
McMillan said the additional space will enable the lab to terminate operations in the CMR facility for less than the overall cost compared to constructing CMRR‐NF.
“We have plutonium recovery requirements that were implemented during the Cold War to preserve as much of our limited supply of this vital metal as possible. We now have an abundant supply of the material, so if we reduce the recovery requirement and eliminate the redundant equipment needed for these operations, we now have very valuable vacant existing space. This space can be converted over the span of a few years for missions of far greater consequence. Also, from a cost and regulatory perspective, it is typically less expensive and faster to create new missions inside an existing permitted workspace.”
McMillan said the lab is proposing to NNSA, that smaller, segmented, or modular facility additions will be the most effective path forward.
“Whether it is a plutonium storage vault, a pit processing facility, or a radiological diagnostic suite, we will need space for these operations after we determine which is least appropriate for inclusion in our existing plutonium facility,” he said.
“These modest steps should be sufficient to preserve our plutonium capabilities into the future and hopefully avoid some of the pitfalls we have experienced trying to construct very large multipurpose nuclear facilities over several decades. These additions are intended to “scale,” not solve, most of the past acquisition challenges with “big box” nuclear projects and be adaptable for a broad range possible futures — not just at Los Alamos. Another significant benefit to moving operations to modules would be to extend the life of PF‐4 for several decades.”
On Friday, McMillan talks more about plutonium.