From dust of CMRR, a 'new path' emerges

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By The Staff

Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Charlie McMillan traveled to Washington to take part in a Nuclear Deterrence Conference.

And he broke some news concerning the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility.

It’s probably not going to be built.

According to the Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor, McMillan told the conference attendees that the lab is proposing a smaller scale approach to providing long-term plutonium capabilities for the nation. 

McMillan said the lab is pursuing designing and building “small, individual facilities” to meet specific tasks associated with maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. 

“I am concerned that in the current fiscal environment, it may no longer be practical to build large, high-hazard nuclear facilities,” McMillan said. “A new path forward is needed.”

The trade publication reported that the proposal had been briefed to Capitol Hill staff in recent weeks and it is believed to provide a cheaper way of meeting the nation’s long-term plutonium needs. 

Cost estimates for the CMRR-NF had ranged from $3.7 billion to $5.8 billion. The administration had decided to defer the project for five years in a decision it made last year.

“This means the new nuclear facility, as it was originally designed, is dead,” Stephen Young, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Global Security Newswire after hearing the laboratory director’s comments. “There may be a new building, but it won’t be that big, expensive box.”

The trade publication reported that Los Alamos has examined establishing an interim plutonium capability by using existing facilities both at Los Alamos and across the weapons complex, including at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. That effort, however, has been stalled because Congress has thus far refused to approve a reprogramming request that would allow the lab to do more work on the interim capability.

“It may seem easier to envision a large signature facility that does all things nuclear. That’s kind of what we had for the analytical capability in CMRR,” McMillan said. “But the reality is that the time frames needed to build them have simply become too long. To support this country’s current path for the stockpile, the labs and the plants need access to modern uranium and plutonium facilities sooner rather than later.” 

The trade publication reported that the lab would take advantage of the Radiological Laboratory Utility/Office Building as well as possibly building smaller buildings. The cost of such buildings has yet to be released but it would be obviously cheaper than building the CMRR-NF.

“Smaller, specialized facilities together with repurposing existing space would be one approach because the cost to the taxpayer would be smaller and the design approvals and construction would be simpler,” McMillan said.

According to the trade publication, McMillan said that recent policy changes by the NNSA that allow more plutonium to be housed in the RLOUB — 26 grams, up from six grams — have made different approaches possible, both in the short term and the long term.

 “That makes a difference in what we can do,” he said. “Those kinds of policy decisions lead to different options. We are proposing a set of similar changes that could then lead to different ways to use space within existing facilities as well as those smaller facilities to provide the capability. But those are options we’re giving the government.”

McMillan told conference attendees that it is not his decision that the CMRR-NF never be built.

 “That’s going to be a governmental decision,” he said. “What we have been working to do is provide the government with options and provide the capabilities we had planned for CMRR in smaller facilities as well as using existing facilities, primarily made possible by changes in policy.”

Local watchdog groups also weighed in on the news.

“The CMRR-NF is dead! But we already know that LANL/NNSA  is now considering a “phased underground, module facility” in lieu of the “Wal-Mart sized” CMRR-Nuclear Facility,” Nuclear Watch New Mexico’s Jay Coghlan said. “For example, Marylia Kelley of Tri-Valley CAREs and myself discussed this a month ago with Don Cook, head of NNSA Defense Programs. We’re led to believe that this concept is not yet ripe for the pending FY 2014 Congressional Budget Request, but it could be for FY 2015.

“The whole so-called alternative plutonium strategy is a bunch of nested issues, amongst them the planned transport of plutonium pits back and forth between LANL and Livermore for diagnostic tests. I think the hidden agenda is to keep LLNL in the nuclear weapons game (especially given NIF’s failure to achieve ignition).”

Penny wise and megaton foolish?

The watchdog group is glad the CMRR replacement is dead? What are they nuts? Nuclear material exists, to ignore it or to use old out-dated facilities to handle it INCREASES the risks. It is sad that a big, modern facility won't be built. Administrators got a new building, weapons designers got a new building, and several other new buildings have gone up at LANL in the last 10-15 years. It's a shame there is no money to build a modern facilty for the riskiest part of the business, but we must pay for Bush's wars and tax cuts and apparently risk assessment does not always play a large part in determining spending cuts.

Hooray for Charlie McMillan for proposing a safer way forward, just ignoring nuclear materials won't make them go away as the watchdogs seem to think. Sometimes we have to deal with the unpleasant or it may come back to bite us. So smarten up Congress, give Mr. McMillan the money he needs to deal with this stuff before we regret our pennywise and megaton foolish ways.