N.M. delegation pushes for ‘modular system’

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By Tris DeRoma

U.S. Sens. Tom Udall, Martin Heinrich and Congressman Ben Ray Luján are highly critical of a yet to be released NNSA Analysis of Alternatives study they say gives short shrift to Los Alamos National Laboratory’s plutonium pit manufacturing program. 

They sent a letter Dec. 18 to Energy Secretary Rick Perry voicing their concerns, saying the study used flawed data that favors moving the plutonium pit manufacturing operations to Savannah River Site.

Los Alamos is the only nuclear facility in the Department of Energy’s nuclear enterprise that has a plutonium pit manufacturing facility. The pits, which are about the size of a softball, are used in the triggering mechanisms of various types of nuclear weapons in the nation’s nuclear stockpile.

“The evaluation process undertaken by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) that led to this report was deeply flawed from the start and the results fail to support any reasonable alternative,” their letter said.
The northern New Mexico delegation said the study’s failure was basing its decision on a building process that fell out of favor years ago.

The delegation recommended to Perry that the DOE instead focus on the lab’s “modular building strategy,” a process fully endorsed by Congress and the Nuclear Weapons Council.

“In 2014, the NWC determined that a modular building strategy at LANL would fully meet the nation’s requirements to maintain the nuclear weapons stockpile over a 30-year period. In addition, the modular approach would provide LANL a safer, more modern facility sooner than the two alternatives the AoA selected,” they said in the letter.

According to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report titled “U.S. Nuclear Weapon ‘Pit’ Production Options for Congress,” the modular strategy calls for building structures that connect to the 50-year-old plutonium pit manufacturing facility.

These “modules” would be self contained, underground. Each would be built for a single purpose and connected to a tunnel between PF-4 building and LANL’s Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building. The modules would be between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet, lower in height and narrower than the radiological office and PF-4 buildings.

“Los Alamos recognizes that the “big box” approach – building a single large building like PF-4 or CMRR-NF – no longer appears politically and fiscally sustainable over the decades required to plan and build such a facility,” the report said.
The report also says the modular approach could be used to build facilities more quickly and less expensively. The modular system would be safer too, “since each module would house a single operation, safety planning could be specific to each module instead of, at present, accommodating the highest-risk type and quantity of material,” the report said.

The northern New Mexico delegation is waiting for an NNSA’s engineering analysis in February to support their criticism.

“We expect the engineering analysis will fully address your own department’s shortcomings identified in the AoA, including full consideration of the NWC’s approved modular approach and take into consideration the availability and costs of completing this mission elsewhere, and that the final selection of an alternative will meet the requirements of the NWC from a cost, schedule, and capability perspective,” the letter said.