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Bulletin #137: Solstice greetings: on CMRR, real progress but a long way to go; our plans for 2012; please help financially if you can, and thank you for all your support

December 21, 2011

Dear friends –

Thank you for your solidarity and support this year!  As we approach the solstice and the holiday season I’d like to summarize where we stand in our efforts to stop the proposed CMRR Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos.  I would also like to tell you our general approach to the year ahead and ask you for your financial support and outreach to friends and potential major donors.  (In the next Bulletin: suggestions for what else might be highly useful.)

1.  On CMRR: real progress but a long ways to go

Last week, funding for the proposed warhead core (“pit”) factory expansion project – CMRR – at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) was cut by a full third in both the FY2012 Defense Authorization Act and the FY2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act – to $200 million (M) from a requested $300 M.  Of this, $30 M is targeted toward completing the first CMRR building, the Radiological Laboratory, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB), so the cut to the $270 M requested for CMRR-NF is steeper: 37%.

No other warhead infrastructure project was cut in either law, with the exception of a $9.4 M cut to a proposed $19.4 M investment in the TA-55 Reinvestment Project in FY2012, located right next door to CMRR.  The CMRR-NF was singled out for cuts.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act also barred CMRR-NF construction in FY2012.  This means that the planned completion date for CMRR-NF has been effectively set back one year to 2024, when the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at the Y-12 site in Tennessee is also supposed to be completed.  UPF was neither cut nor impeded.

This means CMRR-NF and UPF are now simultaneous projects.  Their combined cost is now widely expected to exceed $10 billion (B), perhaps by several billion.  Their combined peak annual construction cost now exceeds $1 B, a heavy burden to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) budget.  Simultaneous construction of these projects is considered difficult to impossible by many in government.

Up to now at least, CMRR-NF has been the NNSA’s highest priority infrastructure project.  Congress, authorizers and appropriators alike, and in both the House and Senate, evidently think differently, at least for the time being.

Nonetheless CMRR-NF design continues full steam ahead.  Hundreds of people are working on it.  And the CMRR project has taken hits in the past – House appropriators have never liked it much – and bounced back.

On what is NNSA spending that $170 M, which comes to a bit more than two-thirds of a million per working day?  Some fraction is spent by NNSA and its specialized contractors, but the great bulk is spent at the Bechtel-led Los Alamos National Security (LANS), the LANL operating contractor and also the CMRR-NF construction management contractor, and the many specialized LANS subcontractors.

Each contractor in the food chain – even R&D contractors located outside New Mexico – pays gross receipts tax (7.31% in Los Alamos County), each contractor has profit; and each contractor has overhead.

Apart from this, the Department of Energy (DOE) Inspector General has estimated (p. 8, pdf) that on the average, out of every dollar spent at a DOE laboratory such as LANL, between 35% and 40% is spent on “support services,” e.g. “executive direction, human resources, procurement, legal, safeguards and security, utilities, logistics support, and information services.”

A significant percentage of CMRR-NF spending goes into coordinating this confusing project team, which includes federal employees, the numerous contractors and subcontractors, and also the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) and other external reviewers.

It would be unprecedented for these many specialized subcontractors to be charging cut-rate prices to LANL.  Quite the reverse.

Thus we can say with reasonable confidence, given all the above, that at least half the funds expended on CMRR-NF design are not being spent on design per se.

Perhaps Energy and Water Development Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Freylinghuysen (R-NJ), in his opening remarks concerning his subcommittee’s markup of NNSA’s FY2012 budget request, was right.  He said the proposed bill would cut out from the Administration’s request for nuclear warheads

…hundreds of millions of dollars for construction projects that are not ready to move forward, capabilities that are secondary to the primary mission of keeping our stockpile ready, and yes, slush funds that the Administration has historically used to address its needs.  The recommendation before you eliminates these weaknesses and it is responsible. (emphasis added.)

CMRR-NF has now been appropriated a total of $630 M.  Design is roughly two-thirds complete.  NNSA has not decided whether it would be better to build the facility deep into the mesa or let it “float” above the thick, troublesome stratum of unconsolidated volcanic ash.  Supposedly NNSA and LANS will bring the final design to 90% complete this fiscal year and produce a so-called “project baseline” – a relatively firm cost, set of requirements, and schedule for the project.

Without detracting at all from the conscientious work being done by many people on this deeply misguided project, how could an external observer not conclude that this project was a kind of “slush fund?”  At the DOE laboratories, inefficiency and exaggerated needs are the structural norm and of the hard-working people – most of them, we assume – are penalized for it.

In other news, the Consolidated Appropriations Act also requires NNSA to prepare a report on "maintaining pit manufacturing capability to meet stockpile needs" within three months of passage (p. 69, pdf).  NNSA's whole approach to pit manufacturing now must be reexamined.

In another piece of good news, the Defense Authorization Act requires NNSA to search for redundancies and inefficiencies in the nuclear warhead complex (Section 3123, pp. 1028ff, pdf).  Such a search is long overdue.  Let us hope the project is not hijacked by people – including some nonprofits in New Mexico and elsewhere – who have thought there were major efficiencies to be gained by closing down sites and rebuilding capabilities elsewhere, e.g. New Mexico.  The most efficient, simplest, cheapest, and most practical paths forward all involve removing inefficiencies and redundant missions at the present sites, where the best facilities are and the necessary skills are already resident.  There is no conflict between good management and progressive nuclear disarmament.  They go well together.

There are other important parts of these acts, which we will summarize on a later occasion.

For more background please see:

Our litigation is proceeding well in both lawsuits.  See this page and this November 29, 2011 update.  I don’t want to say too much more about these cases here, except that we aim to win both cases and have recently received favorable procedural rulings in each.

Our litigation has been indispensable in delaying CMRR-NF construction until Congress could say (as they did last week) that this project was not ready.  Our first case has been highly successful so far; federal defendants had to halt their planned construction for over a year during pendency of the “supplemental” environment impact statement (SEIS) that defendants had to produce to defend themselves from us.  That delay continued past the SEIS Record of Decision up to a few days ago, when it was superseded by the above new law for another 9+ months.  Delay occasioned by our litigation cost the project dearly.

Here are some recent resources on CMRR-NF not previously sent:

We know that many of you have been asked, “What about the jobs CMRR-NF will produce?”  If jobs are your concern, please read those “brief remarks.”

Questions of seismic safety at LANL’s existing plutonium facility, and whether NNSA should commit to any upper limit on potential public exposure, are closely related to questions of whether to proceed with CMRR-NF.  Journalist Wren Abbott captured some of the drama of the recent November 17 DNFSB Santa Fe hearing, one of the best nuclear issue hearings that many of us have attended in recent years:

Before leaving this topic I would like to say that regarding seismic risk, this organization warned the Department of Energy (DOE) in 1997, using data from LANL and its consultants, that the 1995 seismic hazard assessment was dangerously wrong.

Inexplicably, that wildly-obsolete 1995 seismic hazard assessment was used as the basis for the 2003 environmental impact statement (EIS) for the CMRR project.  And some of the issues raised by the DNFSB prior to 1997 regarding the existing plutonium facility, some of which are mentioned in the above affidavit, are still unresolved today.  Is there a learning curve at LANL?  Or, in Watergate terms, “What did NNSA know and when did they know it?”

Certainly the nature of the seismic hazard at LANL was understood by 2005, not 2007, because Trish and I attended a public talk on this subject by LANL’s chief seismologist in September of that year.  No one can say, “Gee, we just didn’t know!”  The same for the thick layer of unconsolidated volcanic ash beneath the site – borings at TA-55 revealed this layer in the 1960s.

We intend to explore this theme of incompetence and institutional unconsciousness a little more, because the kind of CMRR described to Congress and the public in the 2003 period, when Congress was first committing to this project and NNSA was writing its first EIS, upon which it still is relying today, could never have been built.  It was physically impossible to build a building of that size with so little concrete and steel, just for starters.  NNSA must have known this at the time or if not then by 2004, when the detailed design for RLUOB was begun.  Inquiring minds want to know, again, “What did they know and when did they know it?”

2.  Our plans for 2012

In brief, with your help and favorable winds, we hope to:

  • Help bring an end to the CMRR-NF project, in part by

  • Bringing our two lawsuits to successful conclusions;

  • Develop realistic management plans to downsize other NNSA weapons programs;

  • Continue to work closely with government decisionmakers in Congress, DOE, and other agencies on these and related issues;

  • Increase our outreach to nonprofits and agenda-setting foundations);

  • Re-start our internship program, involving students from the University of New Mexico and potentially elsewhere;

  • As time allows, contribute with others to sustainable development and related conservation strategies (“Whither New Mexico?); and

  • Celebrate, this spring, our 20th (or 23rd, however you count it) anniversary!

This a sketch and it could change.  We hope we can raise money to pay for it, and that’s why I am describing it to you.

3.  Please help financially if you can, and thank you for all your support

We continue to be struck by the generosity and solidarity that makes our work together possible.  Thank you – all of you.

Some of you have gotten, and (due to a bulk mail glitch, some of you will be getting) a “snail mail” envelope containing an updated funding appeal (pdf) and a couple of the above-cited materials.  That appeal was an update of the one we sent in August (pdf).  Together they make a good explanation of what we are about here.  We urge you to read them carefully and consider discussing them with your philanthropically-minded friends.  Such conversations are incredibly important, and not just to us.  They are part of the social and political transformation we need.  Better sooner, under today’s relatively comfortable, wealthy conditions, than later.

If you aren’t yet, please consider becoming a Sustaining Donor (pdf – print and mail), even at the smallest level if necessary.  You can also donate on-line (it costs 4.5%).

Our address and contact information is below if you have any questions.

Best wishes,

Greg and Trish, for the Los Alamos Study Group

P.S. We hope to take up the perennial koan of “what you can do” again in the next Bulletin.  Stay tuned.

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