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"Forget the Rest" blog

October 29, 2006 by email

Attn: Ms. Sandra Schubert, Counsel
Senator Harry Reid
528 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Re:      Why the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Facility (Project 04-D-125) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) should not be funded

Contents in brief

1.         There is a long-standing pattern of poor project justification and planning that has wasted many billions of dollars at DOE and NNSA.  The CMRR is yet another case.

2.         Successful operation of a finished CMRR depends upon $1-3 billion in other new infrastructure projects at LANL, not all of which are yet approved. 

3.         The CMRR project is likely to strongly prejudice decisions about the future of the nuclear weapons complex.

4.         The CMRR project rationale depends heavily if not solely upon approval of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program to replace existing U.S. warheads with new ones, requiring a large manufacturing campaign for plutonium warhead cores (“pits”) beginning near the middle of the next decade.    

5.         The existing CMR facility has been the recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades and may be able to house LANL radiological laboratory operations for many years to come.

6.         Projected CMRR expenses are growing and already suggest project management problems and potential irregularities.

7.         There is no solid justification for pit production at all, let alone for production in the planned LANL TA-55 complex including CMRR.  TA-55 has serious inherent problems regarding security, safety, and the age of related buildings.

8.         Strong efforts should be made to terminate or delay the CMRR this year, not only to save the $112 million in project funds requested but also to forestall prejudicing very expensive long-term complex-wide infrastructure decisions.  At a minimum, tough questions regarding CMRR project justification, project planning, and expenses should be posed and answered prior to funding.

Dear Ms. Schubert –

Thank you for taking the time to meet with me Friday about the CMRR project and related matters, as well as your gracious hospitality and interest in the future of the nuclear warhead complex, decisions about which are now hanging in the balance and susceptible to adverse manipulation by financially-interested parties.

I understand that the course to be taken by Congress on the FY07 Energy and Water (E&W) appropriations bill is unknown to most of us at the present time.  It may involve passage by conference committee (with or without prior full Senate approval of the Senate E&W markup), passage en bloc with other appropriations bills, or finally no passage at all, with these functions of government funded by a continuing resolution that might extend part or even all the way through FY07 without revision.  Thus the opportunities to fine-tune the contents of the FY07 E&W appropriations bill may be limited not only this fall but afterwards. 

Before getting into some of the details, let me begin by saying that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), whose budget I am discussing here, is a multi-dimensional mess.  This seems to be a point on which many parties who might otherwise differ can agree.  In particular, NNSA weapons complex planning seems to have no clear, solid direction but rather multiple conflicting directions.  Further, while most in Congress haven’t looked into the matter closely, with each passing year NNSA’s core programs violate the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) ever more clearly, which calls for good faith negotiations to achieve a specific outcome: full mutual nuclear disarmament.

Leaving such fundamental matters to another time and more to the immediate point of this letter, some of the technical assumptions that have been driving NNSA’s most expensive and aggressive programs are false, such as the assertion that plutonium warhead cores (“pits”) suffer deleterious aging effects on any relevant time scale.[1]  The overall picture that emerges is that NNSA’s management, planning, and working assumptions do not rest on solid ground and are instead based on unexamined and often hidden assumptions, mere slogans, and institutional self-interest.

I could go on to detail the many assumptions underpinning NNSA programs that are factually false or blown far out of proportion, but this may not be necessary.  For there appears to be a growing understanding – an understanding that extends, rumor says, even to parts of the White House – that NNSA weapons programs are to a great extent a welfare program for scientists.  Many projects and programs – between two-thirds and three-fourths, I would say on the basis of a project-by-project review I did a few years ago[2] -- which are sold as necessary to maintain the nuclear stockpile are really more about maintaining employment and budgets.

The frequency of problems around the weapons complex – security problems, project management problems, and all the rest – must be interpreted in the light of NNSA’s fundamental problems, which include excessive funding, lack of clear mission need, excessive privatization and related structural issues, and finally bedrock, common-sense ambivalence about the morality and security benefit of threats made using weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  In NNSA’s defense, no amount of money or management legerdemain can solve all these problems.  To paraphrase John Richter, perhaps LANL’s most senior weapons designer, the customer really doesn’t want the product.  Excluding the support nuclear weapons receive from contractors and politicians in key nuclear locales, polls show that nuclear weapons have very little political support in the U.S. today.[3]

I believe the present political moment provides excellent new opportunities to trim the NNSA budget and programs overall.  This is especially true given today’s wider awareness of proliferation risks and the enormous fiscal burdens imposed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will continue for years no matter what strategy is pursued in these places.  And to repeat, the U.S. must fulfill its treaty obligation to achieve nuclear disarmament, compliance with which is in our own security interest, in the short run as well as over the long haul.

1. The LANL CMRR project

Basic budgetary and planning background on the CMRR project can be found on pp. 279-285 of Volume 1 of the Department of Energy (DOE) Congressional Budget Request (CBR) for FY2007.[4]  A sketchy project update was also recently provided by LANL and NNSA.[5]

The total project cost (TPC) for the CMRR is currently estimated to be between $745 and $975 million (M).  Most components of this estimate have not been validated; as this occurs further cost expansion is possible and even likely considering the past history of this project and of large DOE projects in general.[6]  Project duration is estimated to be 8-12 years, placing operational start-up between 2014 (the date most often stated) and 2018.  The CMRR project is, after the National Ignition Facility (NIF) and the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility at the Y-12 plant, the nation’s biggest nuclear weapons construction project.

The project consists of two buildings totaling 400,000 square feet, one a combination radiological laboratory, office complex, and mechanical core located outside the existing TA-55 security zone and the second a Hazard Category II nuclear materials facility and vault located inside the TA-55 security zone.  The vault would have a capacity of 6 metric tons of special nuclear materials (SNM).

It must be noted that the rationale for CMRR project as well as its successful operation is closely tied to other infrastructure improvements at LANL, improvements related to SNM, security, transportation, nuclear waste, as well as to associated warhead design and surrogate testing functions plus administration, a new warehouse complex, and so on.  The same aggressive, cost-is-no-object assumptions about the nation’s desire for new-design nuclear weapons and the pit production needed to provide them which underlie the CMRR project also underlie these other “necessary” LANL infrastructure improvements.

Planned infrastructure improvements related to SNM activities at LANL have been estimated by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) to cost $2 billion, including the CMRR.[7]  In fact capital costs will be much more if the full scope of security, administrative, utilities, waste management, and transportation projects are included.  I would be surprised if the real cost of these additional projects totaled much less than another $2 billion, raising the total infrastructure investment for new LANL missions to the ballpark of $4 billion (excluding program, i.e. operating, costs).

Thus pit production, even at a rate which some might consider moderate, is the sort of mission for which NNSA must be “in for a dime, in for a dollar.”  For these reasons I think the CMRR project has long coat-tails, entailing much greater costs than would be immediately apparent from its (already large) budget line alone.

It is this ability to prejudice future funding decisions, constraining Congress’ power of choice by means of large sunk costs, that makes the CMRR such an attractive project for congressional LANL boosters and for those who wish to produce new kinds of nuclear weapons.  It is equally important for those of us who seek to constrain what amounts to an indirect commitment to new weapons and billions of dollars in closely-related infrastructure at LANL alone.

I should also mention that the prejudicial character of the CMRR project with respect to decisions about the future of the nuclear weapons complex raises legal questions involving the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The CMRR project formally began as Project 03-D-103, Project Engineering and Design (various sites) in FY03, which initiated design for four new projects.  The subproject that would later be the CMRR project comprised the bulk (86%) of the 4-year project funding for all the projects in 03-D-103.

In the FY04 request the CMRR attained its own budget line and thus is described in the FY04 - FY06 budget requests as well as the current FY07 one.  A year-by-year comparison of CMRR project descriptions and funding details is instructive and raises several questions, only some of which follow below.

As you know, the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended full funding for the CMRR this year, while the House nearly zeroed it out.  Last year, the House recommended zero funding but full funding was restored in conference.  Representative Hobson has labeled the project “irrational” and “absurd,”[8] in part because NNSA has said the plutonium and plutonium mission that is the raison d’etre for the CMRR project may be removed from LANL by NNSA in 2022.[9]

While the CMRR project is styled as a “replacement,” it is mostly a replacement facility for NNSA aspirations, not for missions now being conducted in the LANL CMR building or anywhere else at LANL today.  The CMRR is to be a pit production support facility, and the “chemistry and metallurgy” involved are principally those involved with new-design pit certification and production.  LANL has several other facilities, including the CMR facility itself as well as TA-49 among others, which are capable of housing general radiological chemistry involving small quantities of plutonium and other special nuclear materials, with some facilities like TA-55 PF-4 capable of handling much larger quantities.  NNSA has found the “replacement” message useful to sell what are in fact quite novel capabilities to a reluctant Congress.

Some of the novel capabilities being planned for CMRR, such as the processing and cleanout of plutonium-bearing explosion containment tanks related to weapons design, support programs that may not be done at LANL after all and may not be done period.  (I believe these tests are not at all necessary to maintain existing weapons.)  In short, without an aggressive program of new-warhead nuclear design and consequent pit production at LANL, the CMRR has no coherent mission to justify it.

The CMRR project is closely related to the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which Congress has not approved except for early design.  The Department of Defense (DoD) has only tepidly endorsed the RRW program thus far.  NNSA has not expressed any interest or need for the production of other pits other than RRW pits after 2014, when the CMRR would be completed.  The short production run planned for W88 pits is set to terminate about the time the CMRR comes on-line after a total run of 70 W88 pits.  In the absence of RRW production, CMRR has no coherent purpose.  I will return to the issues surrounding pit production in a moment.

Possibly in response to congressional criticism of NNSA’s conflicting plans, two weeks ago NNSA Deputy Administrator Tom D’Agostino referred to the possibility that removing Hazard Categories (HazCat) I and II quantities of plutonium from LANL, previous mentioned by NNSA, might consist of little more than changing the institutional designation for the pit production mission at Los Alamos.  Under this scenario, the actual nuclear material and the pit production mission would stay. He made this comment during a press conference announcing environmental analysis of the “Complex 2030” planning scenario, which is NNSA’s response to a prior proposal for weapons complex consolidation from the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB).[10]

NNSA’s latest iteration of the “Complex 2030” plan lists five possible sites for what NNSA calls its “consolidated plutonium center,” namely “Los Alamos,” (not “LANL,” a potentially significant choice of names as noted above), the Nevada Test Site, the Pantex Plant, the Y-12 National Security Complex, and the Savannah River Site.[11] 

2. Pit production and the RRW

I cannot burden this letter with an in-depth discussion of these two topics, but with the “pit aging” rationale for pit production set aside, any rationale for the CMRR is closely tied to a “green light” for the full RRW project, which I expect would cost several tens of billions of dollars over simpler alternatives associated with keeping current warheads (not to mention the far cheaper alternative of simply retiring most of them[12]).

I am prepared to answer your questions about these subjects in depth, if you wish.  I also hope to write about them in much greater depth in the near future. [13]  Suffice it to say that there if TA-55 were maintained on a “warm standby” mode (with no actual production) rather than a “production” mode (in which pits are made and actually shipped to become new warheads), no options whatsoever would be lost other than a) the short-term production of new kinds of nuclear weapons, and b) the short-term production of 70 new W88s, for which the nation and the world have no particular need, to put it mildly.  In fact the U.S. has placed hundreds of submarine-launched W76 warheads, the other type of submarine-launched U.S. warhead, in reserve.  There simply is no need for the U.S. to retain almost 10,000 warheads, or even the 6,000 or so expected to be retained from 2012 onward.  There are also approximately 13,000 extra pits in storage at Pantex, of which 5,000 have been designated as a strategic reserve, adding further redundancy.

Congress needs to ask quite a few important questions about the RRW program, such as its costs and risks relative to other management options.  These questions will take some time for all parties to answer.  In the meantime there is no need at all to rush into the CMRR project, given the absence of any time-sensitive mission for CMRR and given that the CMRR will lose most if not all its purpose without production of RRW pits or other new-design pits at LANL. 

3. What is known about the detailed history of this project suggests it may be already troubled.

The following questions must be considered preliminary, given the sketchy details available to us at this time.  Congress may wish to pursue some of these questions further.

a. Why is the cost of associated D&D not included in the CMRR budget?

The FY2002 E & W Appropriations Conference Report (107-258) requires “one-for-one” decontamination and decommissioning (D&D) of DOE new vs. existing nuclear facilities on a per square foot basis.  These requirements are to be met by D&D of the existing 550,000 square-foot Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) facility some time after 2014, the earliest start date for full CMRR operations.

Why are these projects separated?  The D&D project only has approval for conceptual design (Critical Decision Zero, or CD-0) and has not been submitted to Congress for funding.  It does not have a project number and is included in the budget request “for completeness [only]” (p. 285).  NNSA says the CMR D&D project is currently estimated to cost up to $378 M in 2006 dollars (my correction from the 2004 dollars cited).

b. Projected CMRR costs are rising; design costs are rising dramatically within them.

TPC is the sum of “total estimated cost” (TEC) and “other project costs” (OPCs).  The CMRR TEC was originally (very roughly) estimated at $500 M in FY2004 budget submittals, but since then the TEC has increased 48% to an estimated $738 M.[14]   Of this $738 M, only $164 M in costs are “validated,” suggesting that further cost increases may be in store.

Of the TEC, fully 27% ($200 M) is for design.  The total estimated design cost for the CMRR project, including both preliminary and detailed design (i.e. Title I and Title II design), as shown the description in Project 03-D-103, was just $55 M.  With current cost estimates for CMRR design now running at $200 M, have estimated CMRR design costs increased 363% so far?

c. Why are design cost and construction contingencies both so high?

Construction contingencies are estimated at $125 M, 17% of TEC and fully 23% of the construction budget.  This is not ordinary practice even for relatively complex commercial projects.  Presumably the huge design budget, if justified, ought to iron out the problems in even a very complex project.  When design and construction contingencies together consume 44% of the project TEC, as is the case here, one must ask whether the contracting agency and/or the firms involved are competent.

d. Some work categories appear to replicate work supposedly already completed.

As stated in the original FY2003 description Project 03-D-103, all preliminary and final design for the CMRR was to be essentially complete by the end of FY2005, with only $2 M in costs remaining to be paid in FY2006 using leftover FY2005 appropriations.  Physical construction was to start in the second quarter of FY2005.  This schedule has been delayed, obviously.  Less obvious is how the money has been spent and what it has accomplished.

The FY2003 narrative under Project 03-D-103 states:

Conceptual design studies are prepared for each project using Operating and Maintenance [O&M, i.e. program] funds prior to receiving design funding under a PED line item. These conceptual design studies define the scope of the project and produce a rough cost estimate and schedule.  While not anticipated, some changes may occur due to continuing conceptual design studies or developments occurring after submission of this data sheet. These changes will be reflected in subsequent years.[15]

For this reason, the Project 03-D-103 requested preliminary (Title I) design, not conceptual design, which was supposedly already done.  Yet the FY2007 narrative for Project 04-D-125, under OPCs on p. 283 states that an estimated $25 M in project (not O&M) funds have been or will be spent for “conceptual planning.”[16]  Why are project funds being used for work which was supposedly already completed, and completed using O&M funds?

Also within OPCs, what is “start-up,” for which $58 M is shown?  It is not defined, nor is it clear why this item should be a capital expense rather than an operating expense.  The FY2007 CBR says the CMRR will initiate “final start-up” (p. 279) and  “operational start-up” (p. 285) no earlier than 2014.  How these terms may differ from the “start-up” for which $58 M is requested in this year’s CBR is not clear.

e. What has been the result of the hundreds of millions of dollars already invested in the existing CMR building?

Appropriators will recall that major capital funds have been spent to upgrade the existing CMR facility, for example in Project 95-D-102, the CMR Upgrades Project.  Upgrades began years before that project, however, and hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on the existing CMR building, which completely renovated many aspects of it.  What is the objective status of the various wings in this building, and what missions could it house during the next decade?  I do not believe Congress is getting a clear picture of the utility of this facility.

What cannot be renovated or remedied is that fact that the CMR building is situated astride a Holocene fault, a mile or so distant from TA-55, these two facts meaning that it cannot be the vehicle to carry forward NNSA’s aspirations for a pit production support building at LANL.

It would be a good idea to review the capabilities and mission of the existing CMR building and compare them with the proposed mission of the radiological laboratory in the CMRR project.  LANL may not need to D&D the CMR building in 2014 after all – and indeed may have no plans to do so.  Keeping the existing facility instead of building a new one could prevent the cost of the CMRR radiological laboratory and could defer the cost of D&D for the existing CMR facility.  The present value of the latter spending would decline the longer it is deferred, and the cost of eventual D&D for the new CMRR facility could be avoided altogether.

4. There are serious safety and security issues that make a LANL a questionable site for pit production.

The raison d’etre for the CMRR building collapses without a pit production mission for LANL.  Supposedly, NNSA has not settled on LANL as a site for that mission (which in any event is not needed to maintain any weapon in the U.S. nuclear deterrent for an indefinite period of time, at least some decades).  But is LANL a good site for that mission in any event?

LANL plutonium facilities, existing and planned, are and will remain relatively vulnerable to terrorist attack because of their location on a topographically-dissected mesa and their above-ground design.  In addition, PF-4, LANL’s main plutonium facility, was built in 1978 and not getting any younger; ancillary facilities like the Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility are older still.  LANL has more extensive seismic issues than its overall planning has yet fully incorporated; the CMRR environmental impact statement (EIS) used out of date seismic benchmarks and seriously underestimates the magnitude and frequency of damaging earthquakes.

In addition, LANL, including its CMRR facility planning, systematically violates key DOE safety regulations, as the Defense Nuclear Safety Board (DNFSB) has observed (see attachment 1 and recent weekly site reports).  At the same time, federal oversight at LANL is declining.[17]  Existing facilities at LANL are old and are not being operated with safety systems that would continue to function in the event of a major accident, leading to a long-running dispute with the DNFSB, which has observed a long-term decline in safety practices at NNSA nuclear facilities overall.

The DOE SEAB has recommended that all operations involving SNM like plutonium and highly-enriched uranium be consolidated in a single site to save money, increase efficiency, and provide greater security.  They have recommended removing proliferation-significant quantities of SNM from LANL as soon as alternative facilities are available, as noted above.

These conclude my comments at this time.  I have little knowledge of congressional procedures, but I hope a way will be found to impede NNSA’s march of folly, in this particularly crucial case as in others.  Thank you for your attention, and if you have further questions on these issues or issues allied to them we at the Study Group will do our best to answer them.



Greg Mello, Executive Director


Los Alamos Study Group
2901 Summit Place NE Albuquerque, NM 87106
505-265-1200 main office or 505-577-8563 Greg’s cell;


1. Memorandum to House Energy and Water: DNFSB issues regarding CMRR project

2. Ralph Vartebedian, “Nuclear spending comes under fire,” July 30, 2006, Los Angeles Times

Copies to:

Scott Burnison, House E&W Appropriations Subcommittee

Jon Epstein, office of Senator Jeff Bingaman

Johanna Polsenberg, office of Congressman Tom Udall

Los Alamos Study Group core


Attachment 1

To:        Scott Burnison, House Energy and Water Subcommittee

From:    Greg Mello and Damon Hill

Date:     October 17, 2005

Re:      Proposed Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Facility safety standards are strongly questioned by the Defense Nuclear Safety Board (DNFSB)

The DNFSB has long requested active building ventilation and monitoring systems for major accidents at Hazard Category II nuclear facilities.  One such facility is Building PF-4 at LANL’s Technical Area (TA) -55, which does not have such a system.  The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is proposing to build the CMRR without an active safety-class ventilation system, i.e. one which will continue to function in the event of foreseeable major accidents.

The DNFSB recommendation 2004-1 and its supporting technical report, excerpted below, document a trend in Department of Energy (DOE) management of substituting flawed paper studies for actual hardware safety-class ventilation systems.  The DNFSB believes that both mission and safety are served by active ventilation controls, which should be incorporated in the building design from the beginning. The NNSA is resisting applying these standards to the proposed CMRR.

The only interpretation we can draw from this information is that the CMRR is not being adequately designed.  This exposes the public, the NNSA, the project itself, and the laboratory to a number of potential problems.  It also raises the specter that the money appropriated to the project could be wasted, as has been the case in so many other DOE projects.  As the Subcommittee is well aware, there are many other factors which raise questions about the propriety of rushing forward with the CMRR at this time.  Is the CMRR being rushed to failure? It is too early for us to tell, but the information summarized here begs this question.

Of particular concern is the concurrent design/build strategy being proposed for this project, which is inappropriate for such a complex facility.  It appears that important corners are already being cut.

The predecessor to this project, the Special Nuclear Materials Research and Development Laboratory, was touted as absolutely urgent essential by DOE and LANL in 1989.  It was never built, and to my knowledge the country hasn’t suffered for its lack in the intervening 16 years.

We strongly recommend that no funding be provided for this project until these and other issues are resolved.

1. Relevant portions of DNFSB Weekly Site Reports to date (emphasis added) (


NNSA has approved the CMRR Preliminary Hazards Assessment (PHA) in support of Critical Decision-1. Nine conditions of approval (COAs) were imposed, covering issues such as little evaluation of chemical hazards, nonconservative assumptions (e.g., airborne release fractions) for certain scenarios, questionable criteria for determining the significance of potential worker exposures, and defensibility of the proposed safety-class passive confinement strategy. NNSA agreed with LANL [not?] pursuing active ventilation as safety-significant at this stage, which is counter to Board Recommendation 04-2. NNSA tasked the project to perform a detailed cost-benefit analysis between active and passive confinement and other control options, such as fire suppression. While NNSA acknowledged the difficulty in technically defending a passive confinement strategy, NNSA expressed concerns that active confinement may exacerbate certain scenarios resulting in unintended hazards and incurring excessive life-cycle costs. Citing a preference for preventive over mitigative and passive over active controls, NNSA indicated that a combination of fire barriers and fire suppression needs to be explored as a alternative safety-class control. The merits and significance of these concerns are unestablished.


On Wednesday, the Deputy Secretary approved Critical Decision 1 (CD-1 – start of preliminary design) for CMRR, as well as CD-0 for CMR decontamination and decommissioning. NNSA owes the Board a briefing within 30 days of CD-1 approval on the rationale for using a design-build approach and on its plan to ensure adequate NNSA and LANL technical staffing for preliminary design (ref: Board ltr, 2/24/05).


The CMRR project Critical Decision 1 (CD-1) package is currently being finalized for submission to the Deputy Secretary of Energy and the Energy Systems Acquisition Advisory Board. The estimated project cost is $850M and encompasses both the primary nuclear facility and a supporting radiological laboratory. The scope for these facilities will meet the baseline project requirements but provide no mission contingency capability. Projected facility start-up is in late 2012. Completion and submission of the CD-1 package is awaiting LASO approval of the Preliminary Hazard Analysis and concurrence with the proposed location of radiological support laboratory; both of which are expected to be received by the first week in February. Project personnel are striving to submit the CD-1 package prior to the end of February to avoid approval delays associated with senior management turnover at DOE headquarters.


CMRR has completed conceptual design and expects a CD-1 within the next 2 months. There may be hidden assumptions that affect safety, such as assuming no ball-milling and no Pu-238 operations. These need to be explicitly reconciled against mission needs and addressed. The project would also benefit if it had NNSA-approved principle guiding criteria that capture the top-level design strategy (e.g., engineered controls over admin controls, the need for post-accident monitoring). As-is, the approach appears to copy the TA-55 ventilation strategy, which may not be the best for either mission or safety.


The CMR replacement facility (CMRR) is in conceptual design. Several key decisions, such as the extent of CMR upgrades and the appropriateness of the current CMR safety basis (a BIO and interim TSRs [Technical Safety Requirements]), have hinged on CMRR being ready in the 2010 time-frame. The site rep understands that CMRR is now not expected to be ready until sometime well after 2010. It may be worthwhile for NNSA and LANL to periodically review previous assumptions and conclusions (e.g., from cost-benefit analyses) in light of CMRR progress and assess the merit of potential improvements verses the continued risk of operating without them. This week, LANL informed the staff it is initiating such a review for the safety basis. 


On Monday and Tuesday the DNFSB site rep attended an NNSA/LANL workshop on the CMRR Project. This project is intended to replace the aging CMR Building and maintain LANL capabilities in actinide analytical chemistry and material characterization, as well as increase LANL secure vault space. It is about midway through the conceptual design phase (roughly, 3% design stage). LANL estimates the cost range is $420M - $955M and schedule range is 9 - 14 years. Near-term schedule includes layout selection in September, record of decision next January, and start of preliminary design next March.

2. Excerpt from DNFSB Recommendation 04-02 to the Secretary of Energy


There is a long-standing safety practice in the design, construction, and operation of nuclear facilities to build-in and maintain structures, systems, and components that contain or confine radioactive materials. The Department of Energy (DOE) establishes requirements to ensure such containment or confinement. In the hierarchy of safety controls, passive design features are preferred over active systems; however, controls must be capable of performing their intended function. Passive confinement systems are not necessarily capable of containing hazardous materials with confidence because they allow a quantity of unfiltered air contaminated with radioactive material to be released from an operating nuclear facility following certain accident scenarios. Safety related active confinement ventilation systems will continue to function during an accident, thereby ensuring that radioactive material is captured by filters before it can be released into the environment.

The enclosed technical report, DNFSB/TECH-34, Confinement of Radioactive Materials at Defense Nuclear Facilities, compares the benefits of including a safety-related active confinement ventilation system to those of relying only on a passive confinement system. This technical report illustrates that using only a passive confinement system for an existing or new defense nuclear processing facility would not account for many safety considerations such as post-accident monitoring and response, and may result in the release of an undeterminable amount of radioactive materials, the consequences of which could approach that of the unmitigated scenarios.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (Board) has advised DOE in various ways during the past decade regarding the need to pay increased attention to the design and operational reliability of the confinement ventilation systems at defense nuclear facilities. These Board efforts include transmittal of a technical report on May 31, 1995, Overview of Ventilation Systems at Selected DOE Plutonium Processing and Handling Facilities, a letter to the Deputy Secretary of Energy dated July 8, 1999, and Recommendation 2000-2, Configuration Management, Vital Safety Systems, on March 8, 2000. This advice has helped DOE improve the reliability of its confinement ventilation systems. However, DOE requirements have become less prescriptive during the last decade as DOE Order 6430. IA, General Design Criteria Manual, was replaced with DOE Order 420.1, Facility, Safety, and its subsequent revisions. Furthermore, it has become apparent that the Board’s advice on confinement systems is not being rigorously pursued as evidenced by the following:

  • On December 27, 2002, the Board sent a letter to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) regarding the confinement concept used for the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex. The proposed confinement concept was based on isolating the radioactive material in the building using a passive confinement system under certain abnormal events. The Board communicated safety concerns associated with this concept in the letter; subsequently, the confinement concept for HEUMF was modified to adopt a safety-related active ventilation system.
  • On April 12, 2004, the Board sent a letter to the Administrator of NNSA regarding similar safety issues related to the confinement systems for the plutonium facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The proposed approach utilized passive confinement of radioactive material from the facility during certain accident scenarios. Further, because the offsite dose consequences of such an unfiltered release were calculated to be below DOE’s evaluation guideline (25 rem), the proposal included downgrading the existing safety-class active confinement ventilation system to a safety significant system. The Board believed that the new approach was inconsistent with a defense-in-depth philosophy. Subsequently, the Livermore Site Office commissioned an independent calculation of the amount of the unfiltered release. These calculations yielded results that were an order of magnitude greater than the original building leakage estimates-clearly indicating that significant uncertainties existed in the analytical techniques. As a result, NNSA decided to maintain the existing safety-class active confinement ventilation system.
  • On August 27, 2004, the Board sent a letter to the Under Secretary of Energy regarding the confinement approach proposed for the Salt Waste Processing Facility at the Savannah River Site. The confinement concept for this new facility is based on isolation of the process building using passive confinement during accident scenarios. The Board suggested that the salt waste facility should be designed with a safety-related active ventilation system.

A number of existing facilities (including the TA-55 Plutonium Facility, the Device

Assembly Facility, and the Hanford Evaporator) rely on passive or non-safety related confinement systems. More importantly, designs for proposed facilities (including Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility and the Salt Waste Processing Facility) are based on the same passive confinement concept and use an assumed quantitative value for the building leak path factor as a design criterion.

These examples illustrate two primary concerns. First, a reliance on calculations that do not appropriately account for large uncertainties is not defensible. These analytically determined building leak path factors are based on a combination of several computer programs that were not specifically designed for this purpose. Furthermore, it is generally impossible for these programs to model the true conditions of a real accident because of the uncertain behavior of the workers and emergency crews responding to the event.

Second, these examples represent a fundamental change in DOE’s approach to protection of the public near defense nuclear facilities. DOE appears to be using the evaluation guideline of 25 rem exposure at the site boundary as a design criterion and an allowable dose to the public. This is contrary to the Board’s July 8, 1999 letter to the Deputy Secretary of Energy that states “the 25 rem evaluation guideline is not to be treated as a design acceptance criterion nor as a justification for nullifying the general design criteria relative to defense-in-depth safety measures.” It is also contrary to DOE-STD-3009 that states that the 25 rem evaluation guideline “is not to be treated as a design acceptance criterion.” However, the Board continues to see 25 rem at the site boundary used as an acceptance criterion for the performance of confinement systems. The Board is concerned that in these examples DOE and its contractors are underestimating the significance of the performance requirements for a confinement ventilation system and are relying on questionable calculations of offsite doses to evaluate performance. The Board reiterates that the 25 rem evaluation guideline is solely to be used for guidance for the classification of safety controls, and not as an acceptable dose to the public for the purpose of designing or operating defense nuclear facilities.

Notwithstanding the concerns discussed above, DOE continues to pursue a passive confinement approach in the design of some new nuclear facilities that have the potential for a radiological release. The Board recognizes that DOE’S defense nuclear complex is comprised of a wide variety of nuclear facilities with an equally diverse range of materials, forms, activities, and proximities to the public. For this reason, it is difficult to prescribe a single, broadly applicable design requirement. However, in light of the examples discussed above, the Board believes a more prescriptive design requirement is needed.

The Board further recognizes that certain Hazard Category 2 and 3 defense nuclear facilities may not benefit significantly from an active confinement ventilation system. An example would be a facility that stores radioactive material in protected, safety-class containers. Other examples may be certain tritium facilities, outside storage locations, burial grounds, or facilities with planned declining nuclear material inventories and scheduled for decommissioning in the near future. This recommendation is not meant to require an active confinement ventilation system in all such cases.

Therefore, the Board recommends that DOE:

1. Disallow reliance on passive confinement systems and require an active confinement ventilation system for all new and existing Hazard Category 2 defense nuclear facilities with the potential for a radiological release. These systems are expected to be classified as safety-class or safety-significant as required by a conservative application of DOE-approved methodology, and should be designed and maintained to function during abnormal and accident conditions. Exceptions to such classifications should be approved at a level in DOE that ensures a consistent, conservative approach throughout the complex.

2. Disallow reliance on passive confinement systems and require an active confinement ventilation system for all new and existing Hazard Category 3 defense nuclear facilities with the potential for a radiological release. These systems would not ordinarily be classified as safety-class or safety-significant unless such designation is required by the DOE-approved methodology.

3. Revise all applicable DOE directives pertaining to operation of existing facilities, design and construction of new facilities, and major modifications to existing facilities, in accordance with Items 1 and 2 above. These revisions should include guidance for determining when a facility would not benefit from an active confinement ventilation system.

4. Assess existing facilities, ongoing major modifications, and new design construction projects, to ensure that

a) the confinement strategy described above is implemented, and

b) the 25 rem evaluation guideline is used solely for classification of safety controls.

Section 42 U.S.C. § 2286d(e) provides authority to the Secretary of Energy to “implement any such Recommendation (or part of any such Recommendation) before, on, or after the date on which the Secretary of Energy transmits the implementation plan to the Board under this subsection.” The Board suggests that the Secretary of Energy consider taking action on Item 4 above in parallel with the development of an Implementation Plan for this Recommendation. In addition, the Board's Recommendation 2004-1, Oversight of Complex, High-Hazard Nuclear Operations, addresses the need for complex-wide consistency in the application of DOE requirements and expectations. The Board expects the mechanisms established in response to Recommendation 2004-1 would likewise ensure consistent, conservative implementation of the confinement requirement provided here. 


The design of defense nuclear facilities includes systems whose reliable operation is vital to the protection of the public, workers, and the environment. Confinement ventilation systems are among the most important of such systems for protecting the public, and are generally relied upon as the final safety-class barrier to the release of hazardous materials with potentially serious public consequences. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (Board) has advised the Department of Energy (DOE) in various ways during the past decade regarding the need to increase attention to the design and operational reliability of these important systems.

The Board, however, has recently observed a fundamental change in the approach to protection of the public at certain defense nuclear facilities. This change has resulted in downgrading of the functional safety classification of confinement ventilation systems. Specifically, DOE contractors operating or designing defense nuclear facilities have, through a strong reliance on analytical estimates of passive leakage, prepared safety bases that have resulted in downgrading and sometimes elimination of the safety-class function of confinement ventilation systems. This approach can potentially result in the unfiltered release of air containing radioactive materials during an accident.

This report describes this misuse of DOE requirements, which provides only minimum levels of required protection to the public. The report also compares this approach with the traditional approach of using a safety-class confinement ventilation system; hence, minimizing more effectively any off-site radiological impact.

In addition, this report demonstrates that analytical tools used to predict passive leakage do not account for many of the uncertainties involved (e.g., the dynamics of the event, diurnal effects, wind, emergency evacuation or egress). Passive leakage analyses often do not consider all of the issues that must be addressed should an accident occur. These include monitoring of releases, limiting contamination, and supporting accident recovery. These uncertainties and additional considerations further justify a preference for a safety-class confinement ventilation system as the primary means of protecting the public against the potential release of radioactive material.

In light of these observations, DOE needs to provide additional guidance and explicitly state its policy regarding adequate protection of the public and workers by mandating a safety related active confinement ventilation system for those defense nuclear facilities that pose the potential for significant radiological consequences.

Attachment 2

Nuclear Spending Comes Under Fire

Congress members question the need to modernize weapons facilities, citing trouble with management.
By Ralph Vartabedian, Times Staff Writer
July 30, 2006

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — The sprawling nuclear weapons laboratory here is just starting construction of a $1-billion plutonium research center, part of an ambitious plan to modernize its outdated facilities.

But congressional analysts and outside watchdogs are calling it a boondoggle — a facility that will be obsolete less than eight years after it opens. A congressional report this spring called the plan "simply irrational," and House lawmakers are trying to kill the project.

"It is stupid to put money into a limited-life thing like this," said Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees energy. "We are resisting spending that money."

It was a tough — but increasingly routine — rebuke for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, a vast enterprise of labs and factories from South Carolina to California that has thrived in the post-Cold War era.

The federal government has spent more than $65 billion on the complex over the last decade, and experts agree the United States has nuclear weapons that are reliable for use in war, safe from accidental detonation and secure from terrorists.

But Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as outside analysts, have grown increasingly concerned about what they see as sloppy management by the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Among other things, they cite scientific mistakes and cost overruns on projects at the nation's two nuclear weapons design centers — an X-ray machine at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a laser at Lawrence Livermore in the Bay Area.

"It has been one problem after another," said Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "The current administrator should be fired."

Not surprisingly, that administrator, Linton F. Brooks, who was the chief U.S. arms control negotiator in the early 1990s, sharply disagrees. He calls the program to maintain the reliability of aging bombs "a rousing success."

Bomb scientists say the extra spending on nuclear weapons is necessary because the U.S. stopped underground nuclear testing in 1992. Maintaining the reliability of the weapons — something the industry calls "stockpile stewardship" — requires a massive, and expensive, scientific effort.

And even though the last nuclear weapon rolled off the assembly line in the early 1990s, the complex has until recently received nearly every big-ticket item it has requested. Much of that money has been poured into scientific research, advanced computers and massive physics instruments at the Los Alamos and Livermore labs.

The most successful part of the program has involved advanced computation. Livermore has the world's fastest supercomputer, the Blue Gene L, which can perform 280 trillion mathematical operations per second. The sleek black computer sits in a refrigerated, high-security vault.

Late last year, the lab first simulated the detonation of a nuclear bomb in three dimensions, a long-standing goal critical to maintaining aging weapons.

But other parts of the scientific program have not gone as well, including the construction of a massive X-ray machine at Los Alamos known as the Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility.

It was originally designed to photograph a simulated nuclear trigger as it implodes under the tremendous forces of high explosives. But the machine evolved into a much more sophisticated device that could take four time-lapsed photographs within less than a millionth of a second.

When it was finally assembled, though, one of the device's two X-ray arms did not work because of instability in a high-energy electron beam. The defect forced scientists to take the arm apart and modify it at great cost. What began as a $10-million project is now estimated to cost $360 million when it is finally completed.

Meanwhile, Livermore also has had serious problems building the world's most powerful laser, intended to simulate the thermonuclear detonation that occurs in a hydrogen bomb. The laser, called the National Ignition Facility, is intended to ignite fusion in a test chamber by aiming 192 high-powered laser beams at a tiny fuel target.

That proved to be harder than anybody realized, said Thomas D'Agostino, the nuclear weapons chief at the NNSA. The cost grew from below $1 billion to about $3.4 billion.

"We ran into technical problems that we couldn't imagine," D'Agostino said.Lab officials argue that both the X-ray machine and the laser will eventually pay huge dividends for scientific research. The technical setbacks reflect their groundbreaking challenges and constitute the kinds of scientific risk the public must accept for advanced research.

D'Agostino added that many of the problems were rooted in the past and that the NNSA, which is part of the Energy Department, was doing a better job managing its activities, including dismantlement of surplus nuclear weapons and the overhaul of existing ones.

But congressional leaders say the department has hardly solved its problems."We have a lot of frustration," said Hobson, who held a series of tough hearings on the department's failures. "We have frustrations with cost
and we have frustrations with progress. They are on a better track, but they have a long way to go."

The agency's highly technical problems in recent years were accompanied by other basic breakdowns. Audits and investigations by the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress, and the Energy Department's inspector general have uncovered management problems, loose financial controls and weak internal security.

In June, it was disclosed that hackers had broken into Energy Department computers and stolen data on 1,500 employees, possibly including sensitive information used in their government clearances. The breach wasn't disclosed to employees, senior department officials or members of Congress for nine months.

Barton was furious, saying Brooks should have personally notified Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. Amid calls for Brooks' resignation, Bodman ordered an investigation by the inspector general.

"If the agency can't protect the Social Security records of its employees, how can it protect large quantities of plutonium?" Barton said.These problems are occurring just as the agency wants to begin an ambitious multibillion-dollar effort to modernize its research and production system in the next 25 years.

The agency wants to restart the production of nuclear weapons, replace existing weapons with new warheads and build new production facilities. Eventually, the U.S. would be able to produce more than 125 nuclear
weapons per year.

It has not offered a price tag for the effort, but an advisory committee put the cost at $10 billion in extra spending over the next 10 years.

Congressional critics point out the agency lacks a cohesive and affordable agenda: It wants to maintain the high-cost stockpile stewardship program and build new facilities to restart weapons production.

"I do not believe we have the proper approach," said Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Energy Department. "It is not my job to maximize spending on this program."

The subcommittee voted this spring to kill the Los Alamos plutonium research facility, and the full House backed the move.

The Senate wants to keep funding the project, though it also has serious problems with plans for the facility, known formally as the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement complex.

The facility, expected to be completed by 2017, is so expensive because it requires sophisticated security to safeguard the plutonium from potential terrorist attacks. But its key role in plutonium research would end by 2024, when all plutonium in the nation is supposed to be put in a centralized facility for better security.

D'Agostino said the $1-billion investment would still be worthwhile because the laboratory would continue research into chemistry and metallurgy after the plutonium is transferred.

But Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group, called the investment "worse than a boondoggle." The program would delay plans to centralize plutonium, leaving a potential target for terrorists, she said.

Some retired nuclear weapons scientists also are dismayed by a culture that puts too high a priority on spending.

"I am a strong believer in maintaining a nuclear deterrent," said Bob Peurifoy, a retired vice president at Sandia National Laboratory who pioneered the security systems that prevent unauthorized use of nuclear
bombs. "But I would like to have some integrity within the labs and management. They'll do anything for a buck."


Supporting the stockpile

The U.S. nuclear weapons complex, operated by the National Nuclear Security Administration, consists of eight major sites across the nation that support an estimated 6,000 nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile.
They include:

1. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: The nation's second nuclear weapons design lab, specializing in high-energy lasers and computational models of weapons. It is responsible for assuring the reliability of four nuclear weapon models.

2. Nevada Test Site: Location for more than 1,000 underground nuclear tests, which ended in 1992. Since then, the 1,375- square-mile site has been used for experiments to support maintenance of existing weapons.

3. Los Alamos National Laboratory: The first nuclear weapons design center; it built the two bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. The 43-square-mile lab is the only U.S. facility able to produce plutonium triggers for weapons.

4. Sandia National Laboratories: The engineering center for all non-nuclear weapon components, including arming and firing systems. It designs and builds electronic locks that prevent unauthorized weapons use.

5. Pantex plant: Only U.S. nuclear weapons assembly plant; also decommissions old bombs; main storage facility for 10,000 plutonium pits from old bombs.

6. Kansas City plant: The main factory for producing non-nuclear components of weapons, including many electronics and wiring systems.

7. Y-12 National Security Complex: Manufactures and reworks the thermonuclear stages of hydrogen bombs. Y-12 is the center for storing and machining highly enriched uranium.

8. Savannah River Site: Produces tritium gas, a form of hydrogen, used in fission triggers for hydrogen bombs. Tritium is extracted from fuel rods and then packed in welded reservoirs placed in nuclear bombs.

[1] I believe that a JASON report will be released soon which reviews data from both LANL and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) that will lay this concern to rest for the foreseeable future.  NNSA is currently holding this report in its classified version. 

[2] See for example Greg Mello, Andrew Lichterman, William Weida, “The Stockpile Stewardship Charade,” Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 1999,  This was a summary of a much more detailed review. 

[3] Los Alamos Study Group, "AP Poll Shows Americans Prefer Nuclear Disarmament to Alternatives by Large Margins," Mar 31, 2005, at A much more detailed recent study is “Americans on WMD Proliferation,” PIPA/Knowledge Networks, Apr 15, 2004, archived at

[5] LANL, “CMRR Project Update,” September 19, 2006, LAUR-06-6590. 

[6] Between 1980 and 1996, DOE cancelled some 31 out of 80 “Major System Acquisitions” (MSAs), on which more than $10 billion had already been spent.  As of the end of this period, only 15 of the 80 projects that were begun during the period had yet been completed; of these, “most of them were finished behind schedule and with cost overruns.”  Of the 34 MSAs still continuing in 1996, “cost overruns and ‘schedule slippage’ have occurred and continue to occur on many of the ongoing projects.”  Government Accounting Office, “Department of Energy: Major System Acquisitions From 1980 Through 1996,” RCED-97-85R, March 4, 1997. 

[7] Charles Keilers, weekly LANL site report memorandum of August 25, 2006 at

[8] See for example the excellent reviews by Ralph Vartebedian, “Nuclear spending comes under fire,” July 30, 2006, Los Angeles Times (attached), and Jane’s Intelligence Review, “US plans for nuclear weapons modernization draw criticism,” August 2006. 

[9] NNSA, “Complex 2030: A preferred infrastructure planning scenario for the nuclear weapons complex,” May 2006 briefing slides, see pp. 14 and 17 for references to removing Hazard Category I and II quantities of special nuclear materials from the weapons laboratories. 

[10] DOE SEAB, Recommendations for the Nuclear Weapons Complex of the Future,” July 13, 2005, at

[11] DOE, “Notice of Intent to Prepare a Supplement to the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement – Complex 2030,” Federal Register Vol. 71, No. 202, October 19, 2006.

[12] The author’s back-of-the-envelope calculations based on the Brookings Institution’s “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project” and a trial set of reasonable assumptions suggest that aggregate savings in NNSA and DoD program costs resulting from deep cuts to the arsenal range could easily exceed $100 billion by 2030, NNSA’s reference year.  For background see

[13] In the meantime you can peruse, if you wish, the short history of pit production at

[14] Of this, about 11% can be attributed to inflation over the 2003-2006 period, using the overall U.S. Consumer Price Index at

[15] For FY2003, $29.7 M was requested to operate the CMR, in addition to other specific program funding.  See electronic p. 12, “Operation of Facilities,” in the NNSA portion of the DOE FY2003 CBR.

[16] In FY2007 CBR usage, “conceptual planning,” where defined, can (but does not always) include conceptual design, D&D costs, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) costs, “other” environment, safety, and health (ES&H) costs, preparation of a “Preliminary Project Execution Plan,” “startup,” contingencies, and “other project-related costs.”  In the case of the CMRR project, this $25 M item is not defined. Presumably CMRR conceptual design has been completed, as has NEPA analysis.  D&D costs are also listed elsewhere.  “Start-up,” whatever this item may be, is a separate $58 M item in this case.  Where has this $25 M gone, or where is it going?

[17] See Greg Mello, “Declining Federal Oversight at Los Alamos, Increasing Production Incentives: A Dangerous Divergence,” presentation to the Defense Nuclear Safety Board (DNFSB), 3/22/06, at

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