LANL’s aging plutonium, uranium research building may stay open

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Lease extension > Some say Chemistry and Metallurgy building used for research and experiments has outlasted its use, sits on fault line

By Tris DeRoma

Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building, used for research and experiments on plutonium and uranium, could remain open until 2021. The building was due to close in 2019.
Some nuclear and environmental experts say the 65-year-old building has outlasted its use. The building also sits on an earthquake fault line, they say.
Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear disarmament and environmental organization, believes CMR’s life extension is “very likely,” and he would like to see the building closed sooner rather than later.
“It is expected to fall down under a relatively small earthquake. It’s not a safe building, apart from the mechanical systems in the building, which have not received the kind of maintenance they would receive if someone planned to continue working in the building past 2019. The building is being run to failure,” Mello said.
The CMR building has been slated for possible closure or replacement since the 1990s. Serious debate in Congress began on the future of the building in the early 2000s. There was a plan to replace the facility altogether, but it was ultimately scrapped in 2014 by the Department of Energy due to cost concerns. The NNSA then agreed to cease all operations at the building by 2019.
LANL Director Charlie McMillan discussed the possible extension in a letter to National Nuclear Safety Administration Chief Frank Klotz. The correspondence was cited in a weekly site report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Board Dec. 9.
“The LANL Director sent the NNSA Administrator a letter outlining a potential slip in the commitment to cease programmatic operations in the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) building from 2019 to 2021,” the report said. “LANL cites the source of the schedule risk as funding alignment issues and the delay in (timeline planning) approval and with the equipment installation subprojects.”
The subprojects include upgrades and renovations to the facility’s Radiological Laboratory Office Building and to 2,800-square-feet of space in the CMR Building.
Officials at the NNSA’s main press office in Washington, D.C. said they are preparing a statement in response to speculation over CMR’s possible extension into 2021.
The building’s purpose was to help the laboratory with the NNSA’s various missions, including surveillance of the nation’s nuclear stockpile and development of nuclear waste treatment technology. While the CMR facility is due to be dismantled, The DOE did build a new radiological laboratory at the site (completed in 2013) and is in the process of installing more equipment in the radiological lab.
The construction of LANL’s CMR facility was completed in 1952. Since 2012, the facility holds six laboratory wings and a “hot cell” area where work and analyzation of radioactive material is performed. The site also includes offices and administrative wing.
Mello also believes that the extension is due to cost reasons, not because of changes in the closure timeline.
“The decommissioning and demolition of the CMR building may cost on the order of $400 to $500 million dollars,” he said. “They don’t want that to appear in the budget, because that could compete with other budget needs.”