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Bulletin #158: CMRR-NF is no longer feasible.  Why, and what now?

October 1, 2012

There is no need for the Administration or Congress to rush into half-baked new projects to avoid constructing CMRR-NF.

Dear friends

This past Friday, we wrote a number of congressional staff and others in nuclear decisionmaking circles of our concerns about the Administration’s latest ad hoc secret nuclear planning process, which has arisen in the late stages of the struggle over the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF).

The decisions contemplated would appear to commit the nation and Congress to some sort of new, post-CMRR-NF plutonium facility “plan” – only there isn’t an actual plan, i.e. a federal plan, as such.  (Los Alamos Study Group letter to Congress re DOE Reprogramming Request of 9/13/12 concerning NNSA plutonium sustainment, Sept. 28, 2012.)

There is a contractor-generated plan.  The Los Alamos management and operating (M&O) contractor (Los Alamos National Security, LANS, a partnership of Bechtel National, URS, B&W, and the University of California) has a plan, which they estimate will cost several hundred million dollars.  The Administration and LANS want the money to begin flowing (to LANS) now, outside and before any congressional debates next year.

We have raised a number of questions about this plan.  (Los Alamos Study Group: Comments on the “60-day study” from Los Alamos National Security (LANS), LLC, for warhead plutonium sustainment, pdf, Aug. 8, 2012.)

(It is germane to point out that the Department of Energy’s [DOE’s] supervising engineer at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant, probably the largest infrastructure project in the United States, recently recommended that Bechtel National be immediately removed from design responsibilities for the project, which Bechtel has been leading for ten years.)  (“Bechtel Incompetent To Complete Hanford Nuclear Waste Cleanup: DOE Memo,” Forbes, Aug. 29, 2012.)

NNSA’s idea is start a suite of new, ill-defined projects using $120 million (M) in unspent CMRR-NF funds, for which purpose the Administration is requesting reprogramming authority.  (Letter from Joanne Choi, DOE, to Senator Levin, September 13, 2102, pdf.)  It is not completely clear what these projects are, or what they will ultimately cost, but if the chairs and ranking members of the appropriations and armed services committees (four committees, eight people in all) grant the request, they can begin.  With tens of millions in sunk costs, it could be hard to reconsider these projects later.  And the money would be gone.

NNSA’s reprogramming request asks for:

  • Approximately $20 M to $25 M for “accelerated readiness and operational start-up activities” at the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building (RLUOB);
  • Approximately $20 M to $30 M to procure “additional Analytical Chemistry (AC) equipment for RLUOB to increase utilization of laboratory space” (the current RLUOB scope of work which supposedly ‘completed’ the building only outfitted about half the labs);
  • Approximately $20 M to $25 M to “accelerate AC sample management/preparatory capabilities from the existing Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) building to the Plutonium Facility (PF)-4;”
  • Approximately $20 M to $20 M to relocate material characterization (MC) equipment from CMR to PF-4 “consistent with ongoing execution of plans to exit CMR;” and
  • Approximately $15 M to $25 M to design a “cost-effective materials transfer system” (aka a tunnel) between PF-4 and RLUOB.

These projects, for which only the initial costs are requested in some cases, depend in cryptic ways on yet other big projects not listed in the request.  There are other mysteries.  For example, the relocation of work from CMR to PF-4 and RLUOB, which these funds would “accelerate,” is still apparently expected to take some 11 years.  As of June, the plan was to cost $765 M at LANL alone and take eight years to implement.  (Los Alamos National Laboratory Weapons Program, Laboratory Director Update, LANS/LLNS Mission Committee, June 2012).

Sources tell us the estimated cost of the plan has been driven down to a little more than $500 M, including a $140 M tunnel between the two adjacent buildings at LANL, but not including any of the work at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) or Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), the added cost of which is expected to be “minimal.”

Senator Levin, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has temporarily denied the request.  (Levin letter to DOE of September 19, 2012, pdf.)  Levin wants to make sure the CMRR-NF project continues in some form, with at least some design teams and contracts in place.  To achieve this, he requests a meeting with NNSA and executive branch “stakeholders,” to bargain with them.  It is very likely that Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, will also deny the request for similar reasons, if he has not done so already.

If the Administration should cling to this precipitous, poorly-thought-through request, it will give great negotiating power to two of the members of Congress who are most hostile to their post-CMRR-NF plans.

In our view the Administration should not request money or initiate work on new projects without a clear plan that has been vetted with other agencies, Congress, the other sites involved, and the public.  There may also be issues of compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  In addition, the projects proposed appear too expensive for what they purport to do.  Some of the work looks like it should be already paid for in other line items and projects.  The new plan, the full extent of which is not clear, looks a lot like a political payoff.

There is no need for the Administration or Congress to rush into half-baked new projects to avoid constructing CMRR-NF.  As we wrote in Friday’s letter,

It is no longer feasible to re-initiate the full [CMRR-NF] project.  This would be true for any new project on that scale...  There is no foreseeable future funding stream that could be applied to such a project….Keeping [CMRR-NF] design teams alive for several years in the absence of a clear mission need, is irresponsible, expensive, distracting, and will not produce any useful or coherent result.  Momentum for momentum's sake is not, we believe, what NNSA needs at this time.

The reasons for this infeasibility are basically the same as they have been for years (Reasons Not to Build, or to Delay CMRR-NF, pdf, May 22, 2011) except that, baked in the harsh sun of fiscal limitations and NNSA cost overruns, the reasons CMRR-NF was once unnecessary have now hardened into reasons why it is now, for all intents and purposes, impossible.

Even LANL was wondering aloud back in 2008 whether CMRR-NF was possible to build.  (LANS in 2008: CMRR-NF may be "cost prohibitive," pdf, April 5, 2008.)

Huge cost overruns are plaguing every single NNSA project.  The W76 Life Extension Project (LEP), which aims to upgrade the most numerous warhead in the arsenal, is in financial and schedule trouble. (DOE Inspector General, “Follow-up Audit of [NNSA’s] W76 Nuclear Warhead Refurbishment Program,” IG-0870.)  The B61 LEP may now cost $10 billion (B) for just 400 bombs.  (“Senator: Cost of B61 Refurbishment Skyrockets To As Much As $10 Billion,” Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor).  Two independent government analysts tell us the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) is certain to cost more than $10 B, as now planned.  These are huge cost overruns in both absolute and percentage terms, and there are many more which could be cited.

The upshot is that the future appropriations that were once planned for CMRR-NF have vanished into the widening black hole of NNSA’s growing costs.  Not just CMRR-NF, but also other projects recently deemed more important than CMRR-NF inevitably will now have to be downscaled, as well as some projects, like the National Ignition Facility (NIF), which have failed to achieve their original purpose. (“So Far Unfruitful, Fusion Project Faces a Frugal Congress”, New York Times, September 29, 2012.)

Eventually some projects – those which lack a convincing business case or have technical problems or both – will be canceled outright, no matter how much money has been spent on them.  CMRR-NF, which is now in indefinite suspension, has been effectively cancelled, as several members of Congress have observed.  As Senator Levin put it, “Pragmatically, the [Senate Armed Services] Committee has concluded that deferral of at least ‘five years’ is essentially a cancellation.”  (Levin letter to DOE of September 19, 2012, pdf.)  Levin says he wants to keep the project alive, but it’s just too late.

In addition to fiscal problems, the CMRR-NF design teams that Senator Levin wants to keep alive at all costs have failed to resolve even some fundamental design issues, such as whether the building would be better built in its deep or shallow variant (Costly LANL project falling farther from realization, Santa Fe New Mexican, Sep 30, 2012).  Despite the expenditure of about $515 M ($635.1 M in total CMRR-NF appropriations minus $120 M not spent; see Los Alamos Study Group: CMRR cost history, pdf, Aug 8, 2012), no baseline design and cost estimate will be prepared.  Specialized equipment design never really began because long-lead procurement, as was also the case for the construction that was incipient in the fall of 2010, had to be halted because of the Study Group’s first NEPA lawsuit.  The disbanding of project teams is almost complete. (“CMRR Background Briefing to Senate Foreign Relations Staff,” pdf, LANS, June 19, 2012; see projections in slide 9, recently more than confirmed to us by NNSA and congressional staff).  Ninety percent of project activity has ended.  (NNSA, “CMRR Project Update,” pdf ,September 25, 2012.)

Thus the remaining political debate about CMRR-NF in Washington has fallen far behind events.  This is what happens when the relevant committees – including some of the very people who are squawking the loudest about CMRR-NF – cannot manage to pass a single piece of applicable legislation for a year or more.  Instead we saw legislative reports that were in some cases far more about political posturing than a sober examination of facts.  This was the case this year in the House and Senate armed services committees.  (Selected Nuclear Weapons Provisions of the FY13 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), House and Senate Versions with comments, pdf, 5-30-12; Concerns regarding CMRR-NF in the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) as reported in the Senate, pdf, Jul 16, 2012).  Subsequent congressional letters, including those from the New Mexico delegation, incorporated earlier factual errors.

Senator Levin enumerated some of the barriers to re-starting CMRR-NF:

This [the Administration’s annual] budget proposal [of February 2012] to essentially cancel the CMRR-NF led to a detrimental self-executing effect the day it was released. Key engineering staff that were leading the project, who are highly sought after on other nuclear and high hazard projects have since left for other job opportunities. The large engineering firms that were in charge of designing this project have moved their technical staffs to other jobs. The result is that not only has the human knowledge base been lost, a costly endeavor to re-constitute contractual activities associated with the design of the CMRR-NF will also have to be re-negotiated causing at least two year delay regardless of whether the project is started now or three years from now. The Committee is deeply concerned and troubled that the NNSA undermined the Congress and set into motion its cancelation [sic] plans without full Congressional consent. This delay also assumes that the same safety design basis can be used from the $350 million spent designing the facility for the past three years.

At this point, every single department and agency in government opposes building CMRR-NF for the foreseeable future, as does LANL itself, and for good reasons.  Sources tell us that Senator Kyl, a foremost critic of the Administration’s plans to defer CMRR-NF, now agrees that CMRR-NF deferral is necessary.  As Senator Levin mentions, the Administration abandoned plans to build CMRR-NF in early February and put those plans into action.  What he does not mention is that the Nuclear Weapons Council formally voted to defer the project indefinitely (pdf) in March.

The resistance to this reality that we see from a few remaining members of Congress is either posturing, a specific negotiation stance, or else is simply not reality-based.

Even if all the problems in the immediate (i.e. NNSA) context of the project could be solved, other realities, even more exigent, would still be barriers.  I would like to discuss those but this must wait for another time.

Until then,

Greg Mello, for the Los Alamos Study Group


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