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July 1, 2014

Bulletin #191: New Mexico meetings; LANL plutonium issues

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  1. New Mexico meetings
  2. Once more unto the DC breach (we went)
  3. LANL plutonium issues, Part III (wonky)

Dear friends –

  1. New Mexico meetings

As mentioned in our last Bulletin (Bulletin #190: Swarm of issues plagues LANL plutonium operations, Part I, May 28) a few of you get somewhat more frequent communications from us.  Please write Trish if you think you might want to be more closely involved (and get a few more emails).

We’re having a series of meetings in July in New Mexico to provide detailed updates on our work, report-back from Washington, answer questions about all sorts of nuclear issues, and discuss how these issues are changing radically in the light of our converging crises.  We’ve found that private meetings are often better attended than public ones (!) so for now that’s what we’re doing.

***If you are interested in attending one of these meetings please call 505-265-1200 or write Trish!***

We will have public events, but it is more important right now to build community.  Small is (often) beautiful.  Large is (usually) entertainment.

We have not forgotten that many of you do not live in New Mexico.  Please bear with us.  The modalities of effective citizen engagement are not, we believe, what is usually presented by the “non-profit industrial complex.”  We simply can’t afford the time to explore this in writing this week.  Please write or call us if you think you might want to help!  It is a very promising time, but as was once said, the laborers are few.

Meanwhile we should again cryptically urge everyone to prepare for more drastic actions, in part by setting our respective houses in order, simplifying, and becoming conscious of community, which will be more important than ever in political work and in sustainability.  We will return to this subject next time.

  1. Once more unto the DC breach (we went)

At mid-month, I (Greg) returned from another week in Washington, one of four weeks there so far this year.  As usual I met with quite a few staff in the executive branch and Congress.  The topics will be familiar: all things plutonium; lab and nuclear weapons management and funding; safety oversight; WIPP; environmental cleanup; congressional oversight now and next year; and more.  We spent a tiny bit of time on the zombie “Manhattan Project National Historical Park” – not dead yet but getting there we hope.

I wish I could describe those meetings in detail.  I can’t.  I can tell you that the Study Group is generally well received and respected.  And overall we are making progress.  This year’s government nuclear weapons policy debates are far more to our liking than last year’s, because NNSA has retrenched its modernization aspirations in many areas (but not in its budget).  Washington is highly dysfunctional, so there’s only so much progress possible there in a given year.  These are however extraordinary times, and this will increasingly work in favor of downscaled nuclear futures we believe – gradually or, failing that, via concatenating fiascos.

Superficially, nuclear weapons policy seems paralyzed.  The reality is quite different.  Gradual watershed boundaries are being passed, as when passing a subtle height of land.  By and by, streams start flowing in a new direction.  In another simile, it is like a glacier moving.  It’s hard to notice immediately, but the movement is real – and inexorable.  When the time is ripe, great masses of ice inevitably fall.

Another thing I can say is that there is a lot more candor in some parts of government about the pervasive corruption of the nuclear enterprise – especially the big nuclear labs – and the absurdity of its plans than many citizens, academics, activists, and journalists may realize.  Little of that harsh (but accurate) internal critique enters the public domain.

  1. LANL plutonium issues, Part III (wonky)

In our last Bulletin we offered background on one of the significant issues faced by plutonium operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).  That was “Part I.”

Two days later we wrote an emergency letter to selected congressional staff and executive branch decisionmakers – and posted it on our web site, something we often don’t do with such letters.  That letter expressed the idea that a political “teachable moment" is at hand regarding the NNSA labs – a useful moment for those who seek serious downsizing and reform.  LANL and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) are particularly wasteful, dishonest, and institutionally greedy.  Cutting the sum of their National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) funding in half over several years would be a good idea from the national security perspective as well as others, we believe.  In fact we think the labs cannot be managed well without that and other management reforms.  We have a list of those – talking points in DC for various audiences – but haven’t posted them.

Three days after that we sent you a copy of a detailed press release calling for a pause in generation of brand-new transuranic (TRU) waste at LANL ("New Mexico TRU:" Study Group Calls for Pause in New Plutonium Waste at Los Alamos, Jun 2, 2014).  That was “Part II.”

To bring you up to date we need a “Part III.”  This is hard to write because the pertinent events are unfolding in a chaotic as well as a secretive manner, and only via a hundred seemingly disconnected details.  The big picture is unfocused, but perhaps you will draw some conclusions from the selection of items which follow.

First of all, LANL is struggling to manage some of its existing nuclear facilities safely enough to operate them.

Yesterday, June 30, was the day by which LANL had hoped to restart “a large number” of plutonium operations at LANL’s main plutonium facility (PF-4), which have been halted for safety violations since June of last year.  As of May 30 “most” PF-4 operations were still shut down.  We do not know if this goal has been achieved.  LANL has been operating a 7-day-per-week “war room” to stand up PF-4 operations.

LANL has also convened a “task force” to investigate how to reopen and reduce risks in the Weapons Engineering Tritium Facility (WETF), which has been closed because of safety problems for four years (same source).

At the same time, LANL is running a different “war room” to deal with recovering (at LANL and at WIPP) from its nuclear waste repackaging fiasco, which led to WIPP closure (and was the subject of the last Bulletin).  We believe we also see a lot of effort being made to deflect blame elsewhere, or deep-six the concept of accountability (as usual).

Also at the same time, LANL is finally beginning to remove, after working through numerous safety issues, plutonium from two dozen or so legacy explosion confinement vessels (“Bolas Grande”) (photo).  We believe this (apparently unusually precious) plutonium is Pu-242 (“Cider”), useful for creating dynamic simulations of nuclear primaries (atomic bombs) using precise, full-scale replicas of deployed or desired new designs (program code name: “Appaloosa”).  It is, in other words, the most precise physical surrogate for nuclear explosive testing available.  We would prefer it not be done and the dangerous old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building closed sooner.

The overall point is that LANL is attempting to restart hunks of its nuclear materials and nuclear waste operations via extraordinary “war rooms” after hiatuses that vary in time (so far) from a few months to four years.  Why?  We believe this is for the most part about risk to the duration of the Los Alamos National Security (LANS) management and operating contract, which is worth billions, and LANS executive performance bonuses, with sums likely to be in the six-figure range on the line.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) sent to NNSA the summary quoted above, which also included revelations about deficiencies in fire protection at LANL, at more or less the same time the Study Group was calling for a pause in plutonium operations that produce new transuranic (TRU) waste.

The multiplicity and seriousness of problems they see suggest, as so often in the past, common management deficiencies at LANL, and support the Study Group’s call for a pause.  While there is no sign that anyone is taking us up on this call, the underlying facts are affecting decisions and actions going forward.

Second, uncertainties and costs related to the WIPP shutdown continue to mount at WIPP and ramify elsewhere.

House and Senate appropriators have each signed off on WIPP recovery funding plans for fiscal year (FY) 2015 that involve roughly $120 to $130 million (M) in extra funding, though details and budgetary funding sources vary between the two houses.  Any recovery plan requires further investigation first.  There is no disposal path now for new or legacy TRU waste – or for 34 metric tons (MT) or more of surplus plutonium, given the uncertainty now attending NNSA’s Mixed-Oxide (MOX) fuel program, which we and many others believe is failing.  NNSA’s program failures are concatenating.

Third, views within government on the necessary capacity of warhead core (“pit”) production facilities, when that capacity should be in place, whether new pit production should begin in earnest and if so when, and what infrastructure – existing, or existing plus new – should be used to do that production, and when these decisions should be made, are a) not unified, b) in flux, and c) lack any real analytical basis.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS), in a year-long study during which we have been frequently consulted, has discovered that basic information about a) the floor space and b) nuclear material quantities that would be at risk in a design-basis accident, both, which are necessary to manufacture 80 pits per year, the supposed requirement by 2030 or so, is simply unavailable.  The analysis of precisely what is needed to produce plutonium pits at the rate supposedly needed has not been done by LANL, or anyone else.  (See series of reports here.)

Further, congressional sources tell us the “need” for new underground production “modules” at LANL rests on the assumption that production will occur during a single work shift only – and so any new construction would “build in” higher production capacity, at great capital cost and ever-recurring annual operating and waste management costs.  Back-of-the-envelope estimates from LANL now floating around Washington place the cost of a double-decker module (production space above; utility space below) at $1 billion apiece or more (excluding any bathrooms, apparently).  As yet there is no conceptual design, cost estimate, schedule, funding source, analysis of alternatives using existing buildings (at LANL and elsewhere), and as noted above there is also no agreement over the nature and timing of the production requirement underlying the “need.”

That is because there is no need, we believe, to produce plutonium pits for the foreseeable future to maintain the present deployed U.S. arsenal.  None at all.

Fourth, LANL is still struggling to complete the first building in the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) project, the Radiological Laboratory, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB).

RLUOB, over time, came to comprise about one-twentieth of the CMRR project cost, give or take a few billion.  (Whether one is “giving” or “taking” depends on whether one is LANS, the corporation running LANL, or anybody else).  RLUOB, including equipment installation, was supposedly finished “on time” in 2013 and “within budget.”  These claims, of course, were nonsense.

In any case roughly $363 M was spent, by our count, not counting invisible program and indirect funding, over which NNSA itself has little visibility or oversight.  We also know that RLUOB was designed and built without meeting current seismic requirements (pp. 17-18, 44-45, 49, 54-56, 80 in “U.S. Nuclear Weapon “Pit” Production Options for Congress,” Jon Medalia, CRS, Feb 21, 2014), even though up-to-date seismic assessments had been available from LANL’s geologists for years.  (This seismic deficiency may or may not be the fire-protection-relevant “building code” violation at RLUOB mentioned in the DNFSB May 30 Weekly Site Report.)

At the same time as DOE was giving itself an award for RLUOB for being completed in such exemplary fashion, NNSA was approaching Congress asking for quite a bit of new (and unaccountable) program funds to finish RLUOB.  House appropriators refused, demanding that RLUOB be completed using funds left over in the CMRR construction project by cancellation of the huge Nuclear Facility.

A significant amount of work remains at RLUOB, but because NNSA did not request funds within a defined project, we have no idea of the total expected cost.  Quite likely, no one does.  The House bill would release $35.7 M in FY15 to work on RLUOB and an analytical lab in PF-4.

House appropriators will not fund design work on new production “modules” using leftover CMRR funds however, because in their judgment (and ours) such work is “not sufficiently related to the original [CMRR] mission need” (House Report 113-493, pp. 134-135).  Indeed House appropriators are quite frustrated with NNSA’s repeated attempts to evade accountability in project management, highlighting this attempted “end-run” on plutonium infrastructure.  Take a look:

Even as the Department analyzes potential alternatives, the Committee is concerned that it may be repeating the mistakes of the past by relying on poor cost estimates and rushing to commence construction activities before planning activities are sufficiently mature. Of significant concern is the Department’s continued practice of avoiding enforcement of its own project management regulations. The Department’s lack of enforcement of its own standards has been found to be a root cause of its continued presence on the Government Accountability Office’s ‘‘high-risk list’’ for project management. The Department submitted a reprogramming request to the Committee to initiate a major recapitalization of its plutonium infrastructure at Los Alamos National Laboratory using operating funds, despite having formal requirements under DOE Order 413.3B which clearly applied to the acquisition of those capital assets. The Committee will not support requests for capital investments that do not provide sufficient accountability for delivering those investments within budget and on schedule. The Committee expects the Department to not only monitor performance of its projects, but also ensure that its requirements are not being circumvented by simply redefining what scope of work is considered to be a ‘‘project.’’ The Committee also notes that the Department is continuing to allow programs to make capital investments using site indirect funds over which the Department has little visibility. (pp. 9-10, House Report 113-493)

Meanwhile over in Senate Appropriations, Senator Tom Udall takes credit for “$3.8 million in design funding for a new modular approach for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility and $35.7 million for LANL's new radiological lab (RLOUB).”  That’s not much money, but depending on how it’s provided it could be a toe in the door.  The Senate’s level for fresh RLUOB spending matches the House.  The Senate Appropriations Committee hearing which was to be the occasion for the release of the Senate bill has been indefinitely postponed, so we don’t know more than this at this writing. 

Fifth, and importantly, the Navy’s head of Strategic Systems, Vice Admiral Terry Benedict, said on June 20 (the transcript of his talk may eventually appear here) that the Nuclear Weapons Council is currently debating expanding the scope of the Alt 370 work on the W-88 warhead in the early 2020s to include replacement of the conventional high explosive (CHE).  

This would extend the warhead’s life to the late 2030s.  At present, the (LLNL- and LANL-driven) plan is to replace the W88 altogether with a new-design “interoperable warhead,”  “IW-1,” the “1” meaning it is expected to be the first of three such new designs.  The Navy has repeatedly expressed its skepticism of this idea – and of NNSA’s ability to produce the new warhead, even assuming funding were adequate.   

This is a battle against needless nuclear weapons modernization which the Navy is very likely to win.  Without IW-1 there is no "3 + 2" stockpile plan – and very little work for the two physics labs, LANL and LLNL, especially the latter. 

The first serious pit production campaign in the 2020s – the intensity and timetable is being debated in Congress; the Administration set back the schedule five years in its budget submission this February – was supposedly to be for the IW-1.  There already have been heated battles within the administration over whether to say the interoperable warhead plan is canceled – or merely delayed beyond the retirement dates of its advocates.   

Finally, if you are a media or government professional, or a citizen who wants to learn more, you will find extensive background on “plutonium sustainment” issues (as they are now officially called) on the following web pages, which we try to keep up-to-date:

I hope this brief sketch has been successful in portraying some of the lineaments of confusion regarding plutonium sustainment that we see.  One of the cores of that confusion is that NNSA, driven by LANL and by nuclear ideologues inside and outside government, has repeatedly attempted to do much more than is necessary.  Another is that the institutional structures that have arisen – NNSA itself, the privatized nuclear weapons complex – are utterly unable to think in the broader national interest and unable as well to competently manage their own affairs. 

Until next time,

Greg Mello, for the Study Group


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