Lab boss to U.S. Senate: Delaying CMRR a mistake

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Testimony: LANL chief sees some improvement in NNSA relations

By John Severance

LANL director Charlie McMillan’s written testimony in Washington Wednesday provided a glimpse at the various issues he has dealt with in what is not quite his first year on the job.

In his testimony submitted to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, McMillan touched upon governance of the National Nuclear Security Administration, nuclear infrastructure, pit reuse, life extension programs, long-term science, looking ahead, funding issues and pension relief.

Today, the Los Alamos Monitor will cover McMillan’s thoughts on the NNSA and nuclear infrastructure. Friday, the other topics in his written testimony will be covered. And on Sunday, the Los Alamos Monitor will look at a Department of Defense report that was leaked to the Project on Government Oversight. POGO later sent a letter to the same subcommittee that McMillan testified in front of on Wednesday.

The committee, however, did not ask any questions of McMillan or his counterparts from Sandia and Livermore related to that letter.

McMillan primarily testified about nuclear infrastructure issue, choosing to focus on the aging Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility, which is 60 years old, and the decision to defer the construction of the nuclear facility portion of the CMRR project.

McMillan said the CMR is unable to meet the high-volume analysis needed to meet the Department of Defense’s expectation of 50 to 80 newly manufactured pits per year.

“Three wings of CMR’s six have been closed because of their location over the fault and to reduce risk. At the direction of NNSA, we are preparing to retire the facility in 2019,” McMillan said.

“The decision to defer construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) leaves the United States with no known capability to make 50 to 80 newly-produced pits on the timescales planned for stockpile modernization.

This will affect our path forward on the W78 Life Extension Program.”

Senators asked McMillan what the CMRR was needed for.

McMillan said, “It fulfills a critical mission in supporting the analytical chemistry and metallurgy needed to certify that the plutonium used in the stockpile meets basic material requirements.

“The ability at CMRR-NF to quickly analyze and characterize special nuclear materials — to know where they were made, their purity, and their chemical and mechanical properties — also underpins our work for the nation in non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and treaty verification missions. Pit production occurs and will continue in Building PF-4 at Los Alamos.”

McMillan said the CMRR-NF was designed to provide needed capacity for materials characterization, waste staging and shipment, non-destructive assay, and vault storage.

And in the absence of CMRR-NF, the limited floor space in PF-4 must be used to address these functions, albeit at reduced levels.

“At the direction of NNSA, we are in the process of completing a 60-day analysis of existing plutonium capabilities within the Radiation Laboratory Utility Office Building (RLUOB) at Los Alamos, Superblock at Livermore, and other sites.

“Because of our limited plutonium infrastructure, investments that are not in the current plan will be required to produce even 20 to 30 pits per year using all of these facilities.

“In this study, LANL is examining accelerating the removal of material from the vault in PF-4, expanding the capability of RLUOB, and constructing a system to transport materials between PF-4 and RLUOB. The not-yet-budgeted costs associated with these changes are expected to extend over five to eight years.”

In further testimony, McMillan told the committee that he agreed with the National Academy of Sciences report on the oversight of the NNSA labs.

The report highlighted the issues for the labs, which included governance that is characterized by a lack of trust, burdensome oversight and structural flaws.

“The issues they identified in their report ring true in my experience at the Laboratory,” McMillan said.  In my view, we have become so focused on operational formality that we risk losing sight of the reasons why the Government-Owned, Contractor-Operated (GOCO) business arrangements were created in the first place. Our common objective is to safely maintain the stockpile using best business practices; operational formality is a means to that end. As the NAS report states, this formality can be a mismatch when applied to creative activities such as science and engineering.”

McMillan said duplication and overlap remain between the Department of Energy and NNSA regulations and guidance.

“As an example, the DOE Office of Health, Safety, and Security (HSS) still play a significant role in NNSA — despite NNSA having its own regulations and guidance.

Structural issues continue to be a challenge for NNSA:

“The 2001 Foster Panel report reiterated the points it made in its previous report, emphasizing that the Secretary of Energy must remove the unnecessary duplication of staff in such areas as security, environmental oversight, safety, and resource management.”

McMillan, said, though, things have gotten better between the NNSA and LANL since he has taken over leadership.
He said the first thing that had to happen was to change the type of oversight from transactional to strategic, which can lead to a smaller bureaucracy.

“In the last few months, the NNSA leadership has begun to reengage the lab directors in substantive dialogue on program priorities,” McMillan said.

“This is a first step toward reestablishing the type of trust that was necessary to create the stewardship program. Many steps remain if we are to meet the challenge of the next decade: modernizing the stockpile at a pace that exceeds our past experience.”

McMillan said, despite the increasing examples of burden, there also has been some glimmers of hope.

The main example he cited was from the lab’s dealings with the NNSA’s Los Alamos Site Office.

“In recent months, we have worked with our colleagues at the Los Alamos Site Office to develop a risk-based framework for evaluating computer system security and streamlining documentation required to operate these systems,” McMillan said. “This framework may reduce a bookshelf of documentation to a single binder.

“Whichever path we adopt for the future governance of the laboratories, it is essential that all relevant branches of government are aligned to ensure its success.”