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"Forget the Rest" blog

June 4, 2012    Please forward to any of your colleagues who may be interested. 

Re: Potential amendment to H.R. 5325, the Energy and Water Appropriations bill, that if filed and approved on Tuesday or Wednesday of this week, would build an additional $4-6 billion plutonium facility in New Mexico, over Pentagon and DOE objections

Dear colleagues --

I am writing to alert you of a possible amendment to H.R. 5325 (pdf), the Energy and Water Appropriations bill, that if filed and approved on Tuesday or Wednesday of this week would build an additional $4-6 billion plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, over Pentagon, military, and DOE objections.

If this amendment is filed we urge you to strongly OPPOSE it.  H.R. 5325 is being debated under an open rule, and such an amendment is quite possible. 

We urge members of Congress to follow the bipartisan leadership of representatives Freylinghuysen and Visclosky in this matter and reject any such amendment.

In 2010 this huge facility was thought to be needed by 2023 -- mistakenly thought, as it turns out.  By late 2011 it became apparent to the Pentagon, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) that there were more cost-effective alternatives which could be put into place quickly, in part because NNSA and its management contractor had been unnecessarily restrictive in computing how much plutonium could be used in another building, then under construction and now completed. 

The agency and its LANL management contractor had not conformed the applicable safety standard to 1996 international standards.  The decision to update the NNSA standard -- which may save billions of taxpayer dollars in new construction and operational expenses -- was made late last year. 

Also, some of the longer-term requirements driving the project were finally understood to be uncertain at best, if not obsolete. 

DoD and other reviews emphasized the potential national security costs of proceeding with the project at the same time as several other NNSA projects that were better-justified. 

Accordingly, in the President's budget request this year no funds were requested for this project.  The plan now preferred by all the national security agencies is to defer the project for at least five years and implement the new alternatives while restudying the project's basic requirements. 

So far $635 million has been appropriated for this building, called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF).  These funds have been for design, which is far from complete despite having been underway for a decade.  There are no plans to complete design this year or in the near future. 

The House Armed Services committee estimates that after the present fiscal year, $160 million (M) will remain unspent.  All of NNSA's projects have cost overruns, and the agency would prefer to spend those funds elsewhere.  House and Senate appropriators, in their bills, would apply the unspent balances to fund alternatives to the massive building in NNSA's Plutonium Sustainment program.  House appropriators would also return $65 M in unspent funds to the Treasury. 

The total project cost has increased by a factor of about sixteen (16) since 2001.  The estimated cost per square foot of useful space has increased by a factor of 45 since 2003. 

Appropriations committees in both houses have issued FY13 Energy and Water Appropriations bills that do not fund the project -- H.R. 532, Bill (pdf), Report (pdf); S. 246, Bill (pdf), Report (pdf). 

By contrast, the two armed services committees have issued FY13 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) bills that propose reviving the project: H.R. 4310, Bill (pdf), Report - part 1 (pdf), Report - part 2 (pdf); S. 2467, press release, pdf. 

DOE and NNSA have been the Government Accountability Office's (GAO's) "Watch List" for agencies most prone to waste and bad management for 20 years.  DOE and NNSA project management is universally criticized; this building is a textbook example of management failure.  There is plenty of blame to go around.  The armed services committees would reward this failure and increase the federal deficit by pushing this unwanted project onto a very reluctant national security community. 

This project is now opposed by ALL the national security agencies and by the two appropriations committees.  It is also opposed by arms control organizations as well as by budget hawks on the political right, such as the Cato Institute and the libertarian Rio Grande Foundation in New Mexico.

Leadership in promoting CMRR-NF over these national security objections is coming from Rep. Michael Turner, Chairman of the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee, as well as from parochial New Mexico interests.  Lobbyists from the Bechtel Corporation, which has the management contract for this project and has been in charge when most of the cost and schedule slippage has occurred, have been very active, given the stakes for them.  The parties promoting the project cite old endorsements, dating from prior to the realization that this project was not actually needed any time soon and would, in the meantime, significantly detract from, and compete with, other more important projects, both for money and for NNSA management attention. 

NNSA now realizes, and has testified, that this facility is not needed until 2028 at the earliest -- meaning construction need not start and should not start for at least five years, if indeed the facility is ever needed at all. 

Further resources include the following:

Extensive further background can be found at  Two lawsuits regarding the project are underway; see

Thank you for your attention,

Greg Mello

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