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December 26, 2012

Bulletin #162: Thank you for your support this year; good news 

Dear friends –

Holiday greetings from all of us at the Los Alamos Study Group! 

To our contributing members, thank you for your support this past year, which made our work possible.  To all of you, please contribute, if you can!  (See more ways to give, below.)

To our professional friends in government and the news media who may be reading this, thank you for your attention and engagement. 

In addition to financial support, we hope some of you will work closely with us.  There are many ways to do that, some of which you may find unexpectedly rewarding.  Momentous public decisions lie just ahead, in which we will be involved.  Our need for, and capacity to work with, committed, skilled volunteers is increasing rapidly.  No matter how you want to be involved, the Study Group offers uncommon enfranchisement and agency.  Contact me, Greg Mello

We report here some good news.  The best news is in a different key altogether, and must wait for another occasion. 

CMRR-NF is dead. 

A National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) spokesperson, told Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor reporter Todd Jacobson last week that “all planned closure elements” for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) project at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) have been “essentially completed.”  The project close-out report is in the final stages of editing.  CMRR-NF project staff, which once numbered more than 500, will be down to 10 full-time equivalents (FTEs) by the end of this month.[1]

So, for now, this project is over.  As an appropriations committee staffer said to me earlier this month during (yet another!) trip to Washington, DC, “As far as we are concerned, this project is over.  Done.” 

The CMRR-NF was to be the world’s largest nuclear weapons factory expansion since the 1980s.  That honor now rests on the proposed Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) in Tennessee.

Loosely associated with CMRR-NF deferral was an announcement that LANL’s workforce would decline by up to 10%.  Not enough, but it’s a start!

The decision to defer CMRR-NF was also a decision to downgrade the “needed” capacity to build new plutonium warhead cores (“pits”) by at least half.  Amazing how that works – when the money gets tight, “needs” are downscaled. 

A pit production campaign is only “needed” if there are new-design warheads (like the proposed W78/88 replacement warhead), and then only if the new warheads are “needed” in fairly large numbers.  So there is another turn to this screw.  Stay tuned.  

One staff member said to us earlier this year, “Our committee asked why in the world CMRR-NF did not get under construction.  NNSA blamed your lawsuit.”  You are so welcome! 

But will CMRR-NF stay dead?  Are we threatened by some sort of plutonium “zombie apocalypse?” 

In 1989, CMRR-NF’s predecessor proposal (pdf) was called the “Special Nuclear Materials Research and Development Laboratory” (pdf) (SNML).  We stopped that; there wasn’t any real need for it.  Then in 1998 came the proposed upgrade of the Nuclear Materials Storage Facility (NMSF), another big plutonium project at LANL’s TA-55.  That toppled from its own absurdity, with a little help from us (we were the Complainant here, pdf, one push among others).  In 2000 the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Updates (CMRU) project, once the largest capital project in the weapons complex, also fell apart, in large due to the results of seismic investigations that we successfully demanded in a lawsuit.  (See also our influential 1997 memorandum, posted without figures).

Zombies 

When Senator Bingaman proposed the CMRR project in April 1999, the Albuquerque Journal quoted me as saying, “It's like a horror movie: It keeps coming back.  There's never a stake through the heart. When will we wake from the ‘Night of the Living Dead’ ideas?”

We couldn’t stop the first CMRR building, the Radiological Laboratory, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB), but we helped stop the second one. 


They’ll be back, but their energy is almost spent.

There’s more good news. 

The Pentagon has been reviewing NNSA’s project and program budgets.  DoD has concluded that NNSA needs much more money than NNSA says it needs to complete those projects.  This means, ceteris paribus, that some additional money must be taken from some national security source in the federal budget, or else some projects will need to be downscaled, slowed, or canceled (canceled now, that is – or the stage set for canceling them later).  As for more money, the mood on the Virginia side of the Potomac is very grumpy.  Stay tuned. 

Also, sooner or later the facts about the extravagant salaries being paid around the warhead complex are likely to see the light of day.  When government analysts start calling NNSA a “highly productive millionaire generator,” as I heard this month, trouble for the greedy contractors can’t be far behind. 

Even more good news – it just hasn’t happened yet

Some day the U.S. nuclear arsenal will be cut back to well below New START levels.  Those levels are unaffordable in the long run, as many now understand.  The U.S. just cannot afford so many new nuclear-capable bombers, submarines, and ballistic missiles.  So it is a safe bet they will not be acquired.  It is quite possible but by no means certain that very few will be. 

There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is that the future just isn’t what it used to be.  That particular piece of news has not penetrated the thicker skulls in Washington, DC.  But it will.  The sooner the better.

Deeper cuts may not happen under this Administration – or then again maybe they will, if the fiscal, political, and military stars align soon enough, which I somehow doubt.  But align they will.  The nature and requirements of the nuclear weapons enterprise, its limited geostrategic benefit and its moral repugnance, and the converging crises that are rapidly engulfing our society and economy, are all in collision.  

The dysfunctions we see in NNSA today are symptoms of those collisions.  That dysfunction can be partially but not wholly remedied.  Efforts to “fix” NNSA and especially its labs without understanding what’s wrong will backfire, as they have before. 

Overall, what is now called “nuclear deterrence” is being reevaluated and will be found greatly wanting, for most nuclear weapons. 

Given the facts on the ground, the U.S. is now rather deeply vested in nuclear disarmament, but doesn’t know it. 

The only way to solve NNSA’s problems is to “make the trends our friends,” as the late Matthew Simmons used to say.  The limits of megatechnic complexity are contracting.  “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

Please join with us

Yes, as the year draws to an end, we do have some good news to report about nuclear weapons policies.  The long-term picture is cautiously encouraging too, but further near-term progress hangs by the slimmest of threads.  In some ways the nuclear weapons empire, stung by defeats this year, is striking back (about which more next time). 

This is the time of year when you are besieged by donation requests.  Like so many others, we are asking for your financial support.  You can contribute electronically, by check, or you can make a donation of stock (contact Trish).  You can become a sustaining donor (pdf). 

More than that, we are asking for your practical, engaged solidarity.  One of the most important things you could do to help give our work wings is to ask friends and associates to support our work.  The simplest, most practical, and often the sincerest form of support is financial. 

Each of us maintains a unique standpoint in our social landscape.  We don’t have your friends.   Only you do.  To the extent you have confidence in the Los Alamos Study Group and want us to succeed, please share that opinion and vision with friends who can help.  The atomization of our society and its saturation with information, which occurs via increasingly-fragmented channels, make it quite hard for us to reach your friends in any mutually meaningful way.  But you can do it. 

“[E]ven this may be the eventful year,” Thoreau said in Walden, in which the life in us will “flood the parched uplands,” and “drown out all our muskrats.”  A great revolution is underway.  Whatever we do, let’s stay awake

Best wishes for the New Year,

Greg Mello, for the Los Alamos Study Group

[1] I wonder why ten FTEs are still working on a “closed-out” project, or why NNSA allows it?  That’s a significant level of effort.  The average compensation per LANL employee, including all categories such as janitors, secretaries, and craft workers as well as scientists and administrators, is north of $180,000.  In addition there is overhead a-plenty at LANL.  It appears the “closed-out” CMRR-NF project is still spending at a rate 25 or more times the Study Group’s total budget.  NNSA must have money to burn.  As of September 30, 2012 they had already burned $635 million (M) on CMRR-NF. [Clarification: $635 M - $120 M unspent = $515 M spent.]


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