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Project estimates go up and up

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CMRR: Firm footing, slow going, rising costs

By Roger Snodgrass

Time and earthquake security are largely responsible for the escalating costs of a large nuclear facility now in design, according to the project leader Wednesday.

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“Time is a big driver,” said Rick Holmes, division leader for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

He noted that the first rough estimates in the range of $600 million were crude estimates for a project expected to be finished in 2012.

The project schedule now stretches out to 2020 for completion and 2022 for occupancy. Estimates still in process place the budget at $4.5 billion and many assume it will be more.

Holmes said addressing the seismic issues at the site have also added significantly to the cost.

“We made the building stiffer, which increased the amount of concrete,” he said. “We will replace the soil at the bottom.”

In order to put the building on the most solid footing possible, another 50 feet under the building, or 225,000 cubic yards of soil, will be replaced with “lean” concrete, which is concrete without stone. That is in addition to 130,000 cubic yards of structural concrete for the Nuclear Facility itself.

Asked how much the additional concrete would cost, Holmes offered a ballpark, “Tens of millions.”

Follow-up seismic studies have projected the possibility of a one in 2,500 year earthquake event at an estimated 7.0 magnitude during the lifespan of the building.

The additional seismic response includes stronger structural steel, ventilation ducts and cable.

Holmes said that is “so that when the building shakes, it will operate in a known design,” during and after the event and last for 50 years.

With the rising estimates goes a rising contingency, now tabbed at $700 million on the Department of Energy documents.

After several years of thin sustenance, the Obama Administration is asking Congress for $225 million for CMRR this year. Last year, the project pulled in $97 million. That was enough to substantially complete the smaller of the two buildings, the Radiological Laboratory/Utility Office Building (RLUOB).

These were among the subjects discussed at the semiannual CMRR project update, a court-facilitated compromise between seven non-governmental organizations and the laboratory and its federal sponsors.

The “Interested Parties” are CCNS, Loreto Community, TEWA Women United, Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Peace Action New Mexico, Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. The meetings are the result of the 2005 settlement agreement between the Interested Parties, the New Mexico Environment Department, Department of Energy and LANL about a state air emissions permit for the CMRR.

Much of the discussion had to do with what participants associated with the “Interested Parties” thought was a contradiction between the Obama Administration’s non-proliferation goals and the emphatic increase in a nuclear weapons facility.

Roger Snyder, deputy office manager for the National Nuclear Security Administration at Los Alamos pointed to recent statements by Vice President Joseph Biden and NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino as supportive rationale for the policy that has raised portions of the nuclear weapons budget along with spending for nuclear weapons.  

“We have to get out of the CMR,” Snyder said, referring to the aging Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility, that is sitting on a similar earthquake zone, but without the heavily reinforced security systems.