Crunch time ahead for CMRR

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By Roger Snodgrass

Old adversaries met again Tuesday evening to discuss the status of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility.

“The CMRR is a major systems acquisition,” said Steve Fong of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s local site office in his introduction. “We haven’t seen anything of this size for a long while.”

The CMRR is a $2 billion-plus project which expects to finish its first and least expensive building this year.

The $158 million Radiological Lab Utility Office Building, RLUOB, or Rad Lab, as it is also known, has about six months of work left, or about 184,000 hours of a couple hundred workers’ time, before it begins to be equipped and furnished.

Next door, the somewhat larger and far more expensive Nuclear Facility awaits an uncertain future. Only its foundation has been excavated.

The two sides seemed almost to enjoy the discussion, despite having been locked into a multi-year dialogue in exchange for an air permit easement for the Rad Lab site.

The cons, designated as the Interested Parties for legal purposes, are composed of seven public interest groups.

They found opportunities to be complementary to their counterparts, perhaps because they were given time on the schedule to make their own presentation and the format allowed for a more equal share of talking and listening time.

“This is our first presentation, our seventh meeting,” said Scott Kovac of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, powering up his slides.

The pros, legally the Applicants in this context, work for the laboratory or its federal supervisors. They made up the majority of an audience of a few dozen people.

The applicants were gratified that Congress had just passed a bill for the remainder of the year, funding the CMRR with another $97.2 million, thanks to a Senate dispensation. That compares to last year’s $79 million.

Surely changes were on the way from Washington, but this year’s budget was very close to what the CMRR project requested.

At the same time, the Interested Parties expressed some satisfaction that the pit manufacturing mission and Reliable Replacement Warhead program which had been significant justifications for the CMRR had become invisible in the latest budget.

That would tend to reduce the need for the CMRR.

“It is not needed in the view of the House of Representatives in recent years,” said Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group.

The discussion boiled down to two basic questions, whether the Nuclear Facility was needed and whether it was adequate to withstand seismic events.

On the first point, the laboratory has always pointed to the antiquated CMR complex on life-extension that is being replaced. Officials argue that there are demands from throughout the government for the functions the building performs, including the weapons work.

Whether they are making one pit or 80, they say, they need the full CMRR.

Specializing in chemical analysis and material characterization, according to a project rationale, the building is also needed for many kinds of nuclear materials handling, stockpile management, future research in materials and manufacturing, non-proliferation programs and waste management.

The planned storage vaults will enable the consolidation of nuclear materials not only from Los Alamos but also from across the complex.

Additional assurance has been provided on the safety issues by a provision included in the FY09 budget bill calling for the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board to be jointly involved in the safety certifications for the facility, including the seismic issues.

That needs to be accomplished no later than July 2009, in order for the second half of this year’s budget to be released.

LANL project manager for CMRR, Rick Holmes emphasized that this process was working well and that the project was committed to providing the safety board representatives with the “certainty of confidence,” that they required.

All agreed that future funding for the Nuclear Facility remains uncertain, although they disagreed whether that was good or bad.

In a memo written by the DNFSB for the week ending Jan. 2, 2009, LANL had submitted an evaluation for an exit strategy for the old CMR buildings that would not rely on constructing the Nuclear Facility.

“The report asserts that all options evaluated given this constraint substantially increase the safety, security and programmatic risks at LANL versus the current approved baseline,” the site representative wrote.

There will be more to talk about next time, when next year’s budget will have set the next course in motion.

The court-ordered meetings are held twice a year. This one at the Best Western “Hilltop House” was facilitated by Bruce MacAllister.