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February 12, 2012

Bulletin #143: Tomorrow's budget request: the CMRR-NF is in trouble

Dear friends –

It’s been a busy three weeks for us since our last bulletin.  We’ve sent me (Greg) to Washington D.C. twice, where I’ve had some meetings on and around Capitol Hill, and to New York for other meetings.  As always, we learn in the process.

On Tuesday night I will take the red-eye back to D.C. again for the balance of the week.  It is a critical moment in nuclear history.  Not to put too fine a point on the matter, the experience and perspectives we bring are unique and not otherwise available in Washington.  It is important for us to bring those perspectives to our colleagues in government, the contracting community, and the arms control community at this pivotal time.

Before we get into the details, all of us at the Study Group would like to thank each of you for your truly marvelous support.  The gist of this email can be simply stated: we have not let you down.  We are winning.  In another day we will all know more.

1. The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) is in deep trouble

Tomorrow the executive branch will release its proposed budget for all federal functions for fiscal year (FY) 2013, including the Department of Energy (DOE) and its nuclear sub-agency the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

We are pleased to report that a large majority of decisionmakers in government reject the notion of building the CMRR-NF at this time.  Tomorrow’s budget will reflect that working consensus in one way or another.

I think many of these parties also understand that this facility is not needed for NNSA’s missions – and it is not affordable.

This is not an Obama-led “nuclear disarmament” decision.  This decision has nothing to do with disarmament.  CMRR-NF is being rejected, for now, on very strong factual and management grounds by the Pentagon, DOE, and NNSA itself, among many others.  Basically these are the same reasons we’ve provided in what are by now hundreds of briefings on and around Capitol Hill.  You can find most of them in this detailed paper from last May.

We haven’t asked, and haven’t needed to know, the details of NNSA’s announcement.  We will all find that out together, tomorrow.

Let’s look back over last twenty months of this project and our involvement with it.

On June 10, 2010, Rick Holmes, LANL CMRR Division Leader, gave a presentation at an Energy Technology and Environmental Business Association (ETEBA) meeting in which he stated that CMRR-NF construction would begin in FY2011, then just three months away.

On June 16, NNSA and LANL held a “Construction Forum” in Espanola for potential contractors, at which LANL’s Deputy Associate Director John Bretzke stated that by year’s end, 100 craft personnel would be working on CMRR-NF construction.

On July 1, we wrote to DOE Secretary Steven Chu and NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino (pdf), threatening litigation under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) if the project was not halted for proper environmental review.

The reply from DOE and NNSA, signed by Deputy NNSA Administrator Donald Cook, was underwhelming, offering nothing but a paper study of whether a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) might be needed as the project proceeded.  The study, as it turned out, recommended against a SEIS.

On August 16, we filed our first lawsuit (pdf) in this matter.

On October 1, DOE issued a Notice of Intent to prepare a SEIS.

Three days later on October 4, DOE and NNSA filed a motion to dismiss our lawsuit (pdf), which included an affidavit from Donald Cook (pdf) stating that NNSA would suspend all planned construction until the completion of the new SEIS process.

NNSA in fact did stop the planned construction.  By early November, NNSA had suspended nearly a dozen procurements (pdf) for which LANL had begun releasing information over the previous month, including excavation for the facility, construction of a lay-down yard, relocation of utilities, and procurement of an array of specialized nuclear equipment for the CMRR-NF building itself.

Over the ensuring year we continued litigation – and conducted dozens of briefings in Washington, armed with detailed analysis of CMRR-NF and related pit production issues that we had generated over the preceding months.

The judge never gave us a trial on the merits of our case, or the formal ability to gather evidence.  After a two-day preliminary hearing in April, where we were supported by courtroom testimony from Frank von Hippel and, prior to this, by affidavits from von Hippel, retired Sandia Vice President Bob Peurifoy, and several others, our (first) case was dismissed (pdf) on May 23, as I was preparing to brief appropriators and others in Washington.

Whatever relief this belated and Pyrrhic victory may have engendered among project advocates did not last long.  On June 15 the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee proposed slashing funding for the project and barring construction for the duration of the coming fiscal year.  Energy and Water Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) spoke openly of NNSA “slush funds” and his committee targeted CMRR-NF for cuts – ten times more cuts than all other infrastructure projects combined.  The House voted with the Committee.

We did not rest.  In July, we filed a Notice of Appeal and Docketing Statement, and on August 31, we filed our opening brief (pdf) and supporting evidence (nearly a foot thick) in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Denver.  The Tenth Circuit denied Defendants’ motion for dismissal and recommended our case for oral argument (pdf), a decision which reverberated in the White House.  We await a courtroom date.

Meanwhile the vacuous SEIS process, which explicitly considered no alternatives to the project, finally concluded on October 18, 2011 with an Amended Record of Decision.  The sole value of the SEIS was to shock even us with much greater expected environmental impacts than we had known about in selected areas (e.g. water and electricity usage, now several multiples higher, excavation, and number of technical areas affected).

Not long after the AROD, and doubtless eager to create a show of momentum, NNSA quietly approached congressional appropriators, asking if it would be permissible to begin construction – even though there was no explicit appropriation to do that.  The answer was no.

At this point, i.e. after the AROD, all NNSA needed to legally begin construction was an appropriation that allowed it.  Starting on August 9, even before the AROD, NNSA started the early procurement process by requesting interest in what came to be, by December 15, 43 separate procurement processes, with LANS, the LANL management contractor, reserving the top job for itself.  Most of LANL then left for its annual Christmas vacation.

By that time, parties on Capitol Hill and elsewhere had begun telling us that construction of CMRR-NF was unlikely any year soon.  The first shoe dropped on December 23, when Congress, following the lead of House appropriators, cut CMRR-NF funds by 37% and barred construction for the balance of FY2012.

Project staff returned from Christmas to face quite a different future.  Pending procurement activity declined down to nothing.  By mid-month, one LANL official told the Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor, “We’re not expecting funding for CMRR.”

So now the stage is now set for tomorrow’s budget release.  Today, the lab-boosting Albuquerque Journal gathered some of the current speculations under a front-page headline: “Multibillion Los Alamos Project Threatened: Budget Ax Hovers Over Earthquake-Proof Lab.”

Stay tuned.  We will send more when we know it.

2. Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH), Chair of the Armed Forces Strategic Forces Subcommittee, will likely soon introduce a bill to mandate CMRR-NF construction

We don’t know precisely what this bill will say, but Rep. Turner’s 2011 “New START Implementation Act” (H.R. 1750) will doubtless be the starting point, as veteran nuclear weapons complex journalist Todd Jacobsen has pointed out.  There may be a companion Senate bill from Senator Kyl (R-AZ) & Co.

Last year H.R. 1750 had 9 co-sponsors and was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as to Turner’s own subcommittee.  It was never voted on or referred out of either committee.  Senator Kyl’s companion bill also had 9 co-sponsors but it too was never voted on in the Senate Armed Services Committee to which it was referred.   These bills died.

Nevertheless this, and potentially other damaging congressional action, could occur.  We will send out a bulletin as soon as we are aware of any such legislation.  It must be opposed, not just for the sake of CMRR-NF, which would be plenty of reason alone, but also because of the military-nuclear deal-making process in which it will play some part. 

Obviously any legislation that attempts to prevent the commander-in-chief from setting levels of armaments, or attempts to interfere with the conduct of foreign policy by this or any future President, will raise constitutional questions.  This won’t stop them.  Politically, such legislation is of a piece with the increasing paralysis of our government, caused primarily by the Republican Party and the activists associated with it who hate government.  This paralysis is itself a powerful reason our country is now in decline.

Let’s make no mistake about how serious this moment is.  We, as a country and in our various locales, are in the process of re-examining the basic priorities of government and the nature of the social contract we hold with each other and future generations, as well as our willingness to accept stewardship responsibilities for our lands and waters, and the wildlife around us.

At the same time, in our foreign policy, we are in the process of deciding whether to base our relations on continuous overt and covert war, or to struggle in good faith to find a just modus vivendi based on protecting human life.

These are very stark choices and our ability to temporize is ending.  Whatever choices we now make are going to be increasingly binding on us and others, and heavily consequential in every sphere.  There is no escape.

To us here, nuclear weapons are not just weapons.  They are quite real tokens of our readiness to commit national suicide, as well as genocide abroad.  Our changing levels of investment in all that pertains to them are an important barometer of our national insanity and the internal corruption of the state by its most corrosive elements.

3. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) and 34 Democratic co-sponsors have introduced the SANE Act (“Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures Act of 2012”), H.R. 3974.

We have been in close communication with Rep. Markey’s office over the past two years regarding CMRR, nuclear weapons budgets and programs, and contractor accountability – and this legislation.  We support it and urge you to do so as well.

Here is a short video of Rep. Markey’s floor statement introducing the bill.

Unfortunately there are no Republican co-sponsors of this legislation.  It has no chance of passage.  It is a purely symbolic effort, but not without value for that.  As a Boston Globe article correctly notes, there is Republican support for cutting wasteful nuclear spending.

We know this first-hand, not just among appropriators, but also from several discussions in Republican offices on Capitol Hill.  We have also seen and heard the support for cutting defense and nuclear weapons in some powerful right-wing think tanks and activist shops.  We have worked with the Rio Grande Foundation and Rep. Ron Paul’s office, to pick two of these, to kill CMRR-NF.

In the Pentagon, it is widely understood that nuclear weapons cutbacks will be necessary for financial reasons, as many have noted.

Thus the principles animating this bill have more political legs than the bill itself.

One of these principles is to delay making expensive nuclear weapons commitments where it is possible to do so under today’s policies or minor variations of them.  Stockpile reductions, which will come, will have concatenating, synergistic effects on program costs.  It is important to avoid potentially needless program startups.

Another is to scale back excessive, and therefore excessively expensive, forms of nuclear deterrence.  This bill would not decrease the number of deployed U.S. strategic warheads, either now or in the future, but it would confine them to fewer delivery platforms.  It would not immediately eliminate U.S. tactical warheads and bombs, but it would eliminate nuclear cruise missile deployments immediately and then stop life extensions for tactical gravity bombs (B61 -3, -4, and -10s), which would effectively end their deployment by the end of this decade.

A third principle in the bill is to avoid needless modernization – modernization for its own (or really contractors’) sake.

The bill falls down in that it does not attack another category of waste, in many ways the most obvious, and with strong bipartisan potential: pure waste, stemming from featherbedding, production of vaporware, poorly-posed “science,” and various forms of excess overhead, all of which taken together comprise, in our view, the bulk of the workload at the two physics laboratories.

All that said, it is far more important to kill CMRR-NF (which can certainly be done) than to support this bill (which will never pass).  It is more important to prevent passage of whatever bills Rep. Turner, Sen. Kyl, and their colleagues may introduce than it is to support this bill.  We must actually cut nuclear weapons programs, and we must not let posturing and political theater, however well-intended they may be, get in the way.

It is not amusing to us that essentially all the other groups listed as supporting this bill were only recently lined up behind ratifying the New START treaty.  In the process, they joined the administration in full support of CMRR-NF and what amounted to a blank check for U.S. nuclear weapons programs.  For most of these groups this is quite a sudden reversal. 

Some of the most prominent organizations endorsing this bill remain opposed to fully ending CMRR-NF, and some have told me this.  Some of these organizations have argued vociferously and effectively in their circles against opposing CMRR-NF, in some cases for many years.

One of the features of merely symbolic legislation is that folks can sign on without fear of the consequences of actual passage.  And that’s OK, if a legislative program that will lead to concrete progress gets the lion’s share of energy and attention.

4. NNSA’s schedule for the First Production Unit (FPU) of the proposed B61-12 bomb has slipped two years.   

In part this is because NNSA still has no clear scope for this project, which would replace the B61 -3, -4, and -10 variants (all “tactical,” so-called), and the B61-7 (a high-yield strategic bomb), with a single new bomb, the proposed B61-12.   The cost has ballooned to an estimated $5.2 billion, the scope of work is shrinking we are told, and the schedule, as noted above, is slipping.

This is a big subject, meriting a discussion we cannot have here.  The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) shot off a very good letter on the subject to DoD Secretary Panetta, pointing out some of the weaknesses and contradictions in the supposed B61 mission in Europe and in the proposed “life extension project” (LEP) – which is really much more than that.    

Upon information and belief, there are no targets for these bombs.  The assumption seems to be that any hostilities that would trigger nuclear war using these bombs would take at least six months to develop, during which time some targets could be found.  Having no targets is certainly better than having targets, but the situation is absurd and grotesque, like all nuclear deterrence “missions.”

Congress has withheld $134 million from this project this fiscal year while the JASON advisory group examines the scope of the proposed project, and whether the work can even be successfully completed.

(For more please see “Nuclear Weapons: DOD and NNSA Need to Better Manage Scope of Future Refurbishments and Risks to Maintaining U.S. Commitments to NATO,” Government Accountability Office, GAO-11-381, May 2011, pdf, for starters).

This delay may cause other delays.  As described in the most recent (FY2012) Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP), the proposed W78/88 LEP – for all intents and purposes a new warhead to replace the silo-based W78 and  submarine-based W88 – was to begin production when B61-12 ended.  Will the proposed replacement warhead schedule also be delayed?  Stay tuned.

5. DoD Secretary Panetta has announced that replacement submarines for the Ohio-class (Trident) ballistic missile submarines will be delayed two years.

This too merits considerable discussion, but the main thing I wanted to draw our attention to in this Bulletin is the delay itself.  The new design is taking longer than anticipated, and the project competes with other priorities for cash under the national security budget ceiling (“sequester”) set by the Budget Control Act of 2011.  Under present assumptions, the first retirement from the present fleet of 14 Ohio-class submarines (each with up to 24 Trident D-5 missiles armed with up to 8 warheads) would be in 2029.  The Navy wants 12 new replacement submarines with fewer missile tubes (perhaps 16).  Under the new plan, the first of these would be commissioned in 2031.

That, friends, is a long time from now.

With that pregnant remark, let’s close for tonight.

Best wishes,

Greg, Trish, and all of us at the Study Group


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