LASG header
Follow TrishABQ on Twitter Follow us
"Forget the Rest" blog

Bulletin #107

March 21, 2011

Dear membership --

I thought you might be interested in the following correspondence to congressional decisionmakers.

Looking forward to seeing many of you tonight in Santa Fe at 6 pm, when Helen Caldicott will speak at the Unitarian Universalist church on Barcelona Road.

Greg Mello

Dear congressional colleagues --

Several senior nuclear weapons officials and advisors past and present have now expressed their lack of enthusiasm about the cost, justification, and/or management  of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF).

Many of us heard Everet Beckner say he was "stunned" by the cost increases at the facility at the recent Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor "Deterrence Summit."  David Overskei told that same audience he thought the facility did not add value to NNSA's mission.  Phil Coyle and Dick Garwin expressed different degrees of reservation about this project before the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee at the beginning of the present administration; Beckner expressed questions about the scale of the project before that forum as well.

There are others with concerns about the value (usable space per dollar) of the project who are not yet willing to go on the record.  The more-than-order-of-magnitude decline in value engineering terms is documented here:, and reasonable alternatives suggested for further exploration.

It is clear to many of us that this project is now in some degree of internal disarray.

I contest the notion that delaying the project will cost money.  It depends on the length of the delay, among other variables.  Obviously, pushing forward a fiasco, especially under the inappropriate "design-build" paradigm, will not save money.  The facility if successfully built will have very large operating costs, so considerable savings accrue from postponing those expense streams.

Greg Mello

Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor


The National Nuclear Security Administration isn’t planning to pause design work on its major nuclear construction facilities in the wake of the nuclear crisis unfolding in Japan, and the decision has generated debate among some former NNSA officials. Damage from a March 11 earthquake and ensuing tsunami has pushed several Japanese nuclear reactors to the brink of meltdown, but a NNSA spokesman told NW&M Monitor that it would not interrupt design work on the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility planned for Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Uranium Processing Facility slated for the Y-12 National Security Complex.

NNSA spokesman Bill Gibbons noted that those facilities are very different from a nuclear reactor in explaining the NNSA’s decision to push ahead with design on the projects, which is approximately 50 percent complete. “One is essentially a non-industrial chemistry lab which works with nuclear materials, and the other a uranium manufacturing facility,” Gibbons said in an emailed statement.  “That said, the latest seismic and structural design codes and standards are being incorporated into both facilities. CMRR-NF and UPF are being designed with the utmost emphasis on robust and layered safety systems.”

Former NNSA Official: ‘You’ve Got to Pause’

Everet Beckner, who served as the head of the agency’s Office of Defense Programs during the Bush Administration, told NW&M Monitor that not pausing to consider the implications of the Japanese nuclear crisis on the NNSA’s facilities would be a mistake. He said the same risk methodology that led to the siting of the nuclear plants next to the ocean in Japan needs to be reviewed. “I think we’re going to have to go back and revisit that and kind of put a new answer in the box,” Beckner said. “It may be the same answer but I don’t know how we could argue today that it will be the same answer. I think you’ve got to pause.” Gibbons emphasized that the agency would continue to make safety a top consideration when designing its major construction facilities. “Safety has been, and remains, one of our top priorities as we make the investments needed to ensure our nation’s nuclear security,” Gibbons said. “[The] Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration have rigorous safety regulations in place to ensure our facilities are constructed and operated safely and responsibly.”

DNFSB Chairman Peter Winokur said that the review of the earthquakes should play an important role in updating the seismic standards that DOE and the industry use to estimate seismic hazards and establish conservative design requirements, but he conceded that it was too early to gauge the specific impact on NNSA projects. “The events in Japan clearly validate the need for robust defense-in-depth and emergency response plans to ensure sufficient safety systems are available to address unexpected situations including the potential for release of radioactive material,” Winokur said in a written answer to questions from NW&M Monitor.

Pause Would Drive up Costs

Beckner conceded that pausing would drive the costs of the facilities up. The most recent cost estimates provide by NNSA indicated that the CMRR-NF could cost between $3.7 and $5.8 billion, and the UPF could cost between $4.2 and $6.5 billion. However, not all experts agreed that pausing would be prudent, or valuable. “There’s nothing they can learn from a pause that they don’t know,” said Don Trost, the Executive Vice President of TechSource, a Los Alamos-based science and engineering consulting firm that does a lot of work for the NNSA. “If there are issues, the only issues are potentially seismic standards, and those can adequately be addressed in the design and design review process. A pause doesn’t do anything except slow down the project and slowing down the project doesn’t do anything except add cost.” In advocating for continued work on the design of the facilities, former NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks noted that the facilities are vastly different from reactors. “You’re not really talking about the same thing,” he told NW&M Monitor.

Not pausing, however, would open up the NNSA to criticism and potentially to lawsuits that could also slow the project down, Beckner said. “I think we have to be careful not to start shouting the sky is falling,” he said, “but we need to be equally determined to do a very thorough job of putting the case back together so that there are no holes in the argument, because if there are holes in the argument it’s just going to make it worse.”

Seismic Issues for Both Facilities

Seismic concerns have been considered at both facilities, especially at Los Alamos and CMRR-NF. Recent studies revealed a significantly increased risk of major earthquakes at the lab, which is built atop a volcanic plateau crisscrossed by active faults. A lab study found that the area has experienced two or three major earthquakes of magnitude greater than 6.5 in the past 10,000 years. As a result, earthquake risk has been a major driver in rising nuclear safety costs at the lab, both associated with the lab’s current plutonium facility, maintenance of the existing Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building and the design of its replacement.

Y-12’s recent Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement indicates that a “moderate” seismic risk exists at Y-12 that “should not impact the construction and operation of the UPF or other new facilities.” According to the document, all new facilities and building expansions at Y-12 are being designed to withstand the maximum expected earthquake-generated ground acceleration in accordance with DOE safety guidelines, which appears to be in the range of a 5.0-6.0 on the Richter scale within 100 miles of Y-12.

A Move Toward More Conservatism?

Beckner suggested that a recent push by the NNSA to relax safety standards at CMRR-NF—justified by reducing the amount of material at risk in the facility—would run into significant opposition in light of the incidents in Japan. In an effort to reduce the cost of the facility, the NNSA is exploring downgrading some of the safety systems at the facility, like the fire suppressions system and active ventilation system. “There’s no way to avoid it now,” Beckner said. “I would expect [Energy Secretary Steven Chu] to be much more sensitive to the views of the Defense Board because he’s going to be looking for independent eyes and ears, ones that are not tied to the project.”

The Defense Board has previously raised concerns about the NNSA’s plans. “If NNSA changes assumptions regarding the nuclear material-at-risk, the Board will review the impact that has on the overall CMRR-NF safety strategy, including seismic safety,” Winokur said. “The Board feels strongly that the CMRR-NF seismic safety strategy must be conservative, providing adequate protection to the public, workers, and the environment.”

Todd Jacobson

Santa Fe New Mexican
Seismic concerns grow over plutonium plant
By Roger Snodgrass

Alarmed by the safety implications of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, experts in the U.S. are turning their attention to domestic nuclear issues, including an earthquake-related controversy at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Everet Beckner, a Santa Fe resident and formerly a high-ranking official in the National Nuclear Security Administration during the Bush administration, called Friday for a pause in the design work underway on major nuclear weapons facilities, including the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility, a multibillion-dollar project in design at LANL.

A deputy administrator for defense programs from 2002-2005, Beckner told a leading trade publication, the Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor, that a pause now to incorporate lessons learned from the catastrophic safety failures at Fukushima would probably be a good idea.

"There comes a point where you have to say the earthquake event in Japan was outside the current window of expectations because it was larger than a thousand-year event," he said in a telephone interview Friday. "Maybe that isn't enough of a margin."

On Friday, President Barack Obama asked the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission to review the safety of American nuclear power plants.

But officials at the nuclear weapons agency said their situation is different. NNSA has authority over facilities where large amounts of radioactive materials are stored for use in maintaining the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, and their new weapons facilities have an ongoing design process that they believe will be responsive to new information.

"CMRR-NF (the proposed nuclear facility at LANL) and UPF (the Uranium Processing Facility in Tennessee) are vastly different than a nuclear reactor. One is essentially a nonindustrial chemistry lab which works with nuclear materials, and the other a uranium manufacturing facility," NNSA officials responded in a prepared statement. "That said, the latest seismic and structural design codes and standards are being incorporated into both facilities. CMRR-NF and UPF are being designed with the utmost emphasis on robust and layered safety systems."

The CMRR-NF is currently undergoing an environmental review, necessitated in part by significant changes to the scope of the building to meet emerging risk factors having to do with possible earthquakes.

"The most recent increase in seismic hazard came in 2007," said Tom Whitacre, of the design team at a recent public meeting in Los Alamos, before the incident in Japan. He said the increases, including the potential for more active ground motion, triggered a process for evaluating all the facilities and recommending changes, if needed.

The project is also facing a lawsuit, challenging the adequacy of the environmental review even before the current crisis.

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Group, which is the plaintiff in that case, said he understands that the Department of Energy is studying the situation but his experience has been that "they aren't revealing specific information about the project that would be useful to anyone interested in its safety."

At Los Alamos National Laboratory, nuclear safety issues have been complicated with seismic concerns, as geological studies have uncovered an increasingly precarious underground structure.

Beginning in 1972, LANL made efforts to understand the seismic hazards on site. By 1987, LANL scientists were estimating that characteristic large earthquakes from on-site faults could range from Richter magnitude 6.5 up to as much as 7.8.

In the mid-1990s, LANL was chosen to be the national center for plutonium processing and manufacturing, using the lower, more optimistic end of this range.

As faults were mapped in more detail in the late 1990s — and found to run near and even beneath some LANL nuclear facilities — concern as to the possible magnitude and frequency of LANL earthquakes increased. A survey found a number of LANL buildings to be at considerable risk of earthquake-induced collapse.

The evolving scientific understanding of seismicity at LANL was not immediately applied to building siting and design and was not immediately translated into engineering terms. Then in 2007, NNSA issued a new detailed assessment of seismic hazard that was found to be considerably greater than the optimistic 1995 figures.

"When they set up Los Alamos initially, they didn't care about these things. They were looking for an isolated site," said Mello, who has studied seismic issues at the lab since 1996.

"Since then, many people have questioned the wisdom of putting a plutonium processing facility and now a nuclear pit manufacturing facility on the side of a volcano," he said.

In its 2011 report to Congress, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, responsible for safety oversight of the nuclear weapons complex, addressed adequate seismic safety precautions in the plutonium facility, adjacent to the proposed nuclear facility — one of its most recent disagreements with Los Alamos.

Having thought they mutually worked out a satisfactory solution to a particular set of earthquake concerns, the safety board then found the laboratory and its managers proceeding in a direction that had not been agreed upon.

"It is not always true that DOE's managers will ensure safety by imposing conditions of approval that address inadequacies in the safety basis," the safety board reported.

"There are tremendous pressures never to let anything get in the way," Beckner said. "I don't think nuclear operations have to cease, and I don't think that will be the conclusion."

But he does believe extraordinary circumstances justify another look at plans for the nuclear facility at LANL and that it should take into account exceptional possibilities, like those that have created such a dangerous situation in Japan.

Beckner said the accident scenarios should be revisited to include, for example, the possibility of a full fire in the vault at the CMRR nuclear facility, where 6 metric tons of plutonium will be stored.

"Then, if you estimate the potential radiological exposure to the public at the boundary will be higher than you can tolerate, reduce the material at risk," he said.

"I think they owe it to the public. If they don't do it, they're going to get lawsuits.

Greg Mello • Los Alamos Study Group •
2901 Summit Place NE • Albuquerque, NM 87106
505-265-1200 office • 505-577-8563 cell • 505-265-1207 fax (call first)
To subscribe to the Study Group's listserve send a blank email here.

^ back to top

2901 Summit Place NE Albuquerque, NM 87106, Phone: 505-265-1200

home page calendar contact contribute