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"Forget the Rest" blog

November 15, 2010

Re:      The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico:

▪   The project is plagued by design problems, cost overruns, delays, and litigation (by us).

▪   The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has halted project procurement.

▪   The Department of Energy (DOE) has announced a new study of project requirements.

▪   Simpler, cheaper, quicker, better alternatives are available.

Dear Senator –

            I am writing in regard to the proposed upgrades in plutonium capabilities at Los Alamos.  We urge you to reconsider Congress’s fiscal commitment to the CMRR-NF, which has suffered obscene cost increases.  NNSA needs to study alternatives to this project, not implement it.  It is already a fiasco and shows every sign of getting worse.  If the project were strongly justified it would gain credibility from objective oversight.  We believe it is not well-justified.  The Administration is rushing toward failure.

            The LANL upgrades involve several line item construction projects within NNSA’s Weapons Activities account, the centerpiece of which is the $5-6 billion CMRR-NF project (Project 04-D-125). 

            This modernization is a key political expectation as Senate leaders consider taking up New START ratification in the lame duck session.  Some kind of plutonium modernization will no doubt occur, but it may not be what the Administration currently intends and promises.  Difficulties and costs are mounting for CMRR-NF, increasing doubts about the present course and making alternatives reasonable.  Increasing the funds available cannot solve all the problems, and might make some worse – just digging a deeper fiscal hole as it were, while threatening morale and scientific recruitment. 

            Most if not all the LANL plutonium-related upgrades lack performance baselines at this time, including CMRR-NF, so there is no real way to know what they will cost or when they will be completed.  The CMRR-NF is to begin construction in 2011, some 2-3 years prior to completing a baseline. 

            The CMRR radiological laboratory, utility, and office building (CMRR-RLUOB) has been built and is being outfitted.  The CMRR-NF, by contrast, has encountered strong headwinds. 

▪   Expected completion has slipped more than a decade to 2020 at the earliest, plus a 2-year prove-in period (pdf, p. 4) and an estimated 4-year transition period (pdf, p. 2-38)

▪   Better-researched seismic hazards, unconsolidated volcanic ash beneath the building, and the requirement for safety-class equipment have caused design difficulties. 

▪   Overall cost has increased by a factor of about 16 so far. Estimated cost has doubled just since the Obama Administration took office.  This affidavit (at ¶10) discusses this increase and more. 

▪   Total program space has decreased from 60,000 sq. ft. to 38,500 sq. ft.[1] 

▪   Lab space will now cost roughly $250,000/sq. ft. 

▪   LANL has estimated annual operational and maintenance costs for CMRR-NF, exclusive of the programs it would house, at about 2.5% of replacement value, about $140 million per year. 

▪   Gross building area has almost doubled. 

▪   Quantities of concrete and steel have increased by factors of 116 and 77, respectively, since 2003.

▪   Excavation to 125 ft. is now necessary, involving road closure and relocation as well as busing or temporary workplaces for up to LANL 4,400 employees.

▪   Environmental litigation to halt investment in the facility has been filed by this organization under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and is being diligently pursued.  DOE has agreed to write a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) (pdf).  In sworn testimony NNSA claims not to be committed to the project yet (pdf, ¶23), a legal requirement.

▪   Last week NNSA halted procurement on the project (pdf) until it’s SEIS is concluded in June 2011.  Plaintiffs seek a de novo EIS, a preliminary injunction on all investment until a decision can be rendered and a permanent injunction until an EIS covering reasonable alternatives is written. 

▪   Despite promises of employment there is local government (pdf) and tribal (pdf) concern. 

▪   DOE Secretary Chu has commissioned a new study of project requirements (pdf), to report early next year.[2]

            We believe there are alternatives to this building which are simpler, cheaper, quicker, and better.  Not long ago, DOE thought so too (pdf, p. 24). CMRR-NF is just not necessary (pdf) to safely maintain the present large and diverse nuclear arsenal.  This truth has been politically suppressed during the present New START ratification debate but may not remain so forever, given the above problems. 

            The sole coherent justification for this facility is to assist in the certification and manufacture of plutonium pits, of which the U.S. has a surfeit for every nuclear delivery system.  There is a scientific consensus at NNSA’s weapons laboratories that pits do not wear out or age, except over long times. 

            Meanwhile LANL’s existing plutonium facility, with greater program space than CMRR-NF, is being upgraded in another line item to facilitate greater pit manufacturing rates. 

            Alternatives to CMRR-NF are numerous.  They begin with more closely questioning the need for large-scale pit production, given what NNSA now knows (pdf).

            Delay can buy time to examine alternatives more closely.  Delay is prudent and will save money.  A decade’s delay would save $1 billion in present value, given the facility’s expected high operating cost. 

            While NNSA’s budget as lately augmented (unnecessarily so, given its wasteful management) can absorb some cost overruns, NNSA is presently contemplating several simultaneous large new programs and construction projects.  Management risk is high in this situation.  NNSA has been on the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO’s) “Watch List” for bad project management for 19 years.  In all these projects, contractors who will profit are assisting in defining requirements.  CMRR-NF is no exception. 

            Further detailed information is available from our court submittals and web site.  Thank you for your attention.  We are ready to help however we can. 



            Greg Mello, Director, Los Alamos Study Group

[1] Hazard Category (HazCat) II space, where over 900 grams of weapons plutonium can be handled.  Originally there was to be an additional 60,000 sq. ft. of HazCat III space for handling plutonium in quantities up to 900 grams.  This space has been eliminated from the CMRR design.

[2] It may be of interest that NNSA has abandoned three wings of the existing 7-wing Chemistry and Metallurgy (CMR) building and expects to use at least one remaining wing indefinitely, undercutting the original justification for the project.  Some remaining CMR missions have already been transferred into LANL’s main plutonium facility.  Others will be transferred to the modern laboratories in the RLUOB in 2013.


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