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"Forget the Rest" blog

New Year's Eve note to selected government staff

December 31, 2013

Dear colleagues --

I hope you have all had restorative or productive holidays.  I know some of you spent them working. 

Originally these bullet points were meant as merely an outline.  The abridged and peremptory appropriations process this year has however collided with our end-of-year fundraising schedule, so we must send them in this abridged form, with just a few details added here and there....

I have gone into more detail as regards pit production infrastructure issues, as I have the general impression (which may be wrong) that the NNSA is again settling into a groove prematurely and without any independent peer review.... 

Godspeed in your work and thank you all for it. 

Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group

Suggestions from the Los Alamos Study Group, in broad outline form, in regards to National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Weapons Activities:

  • No party involved in managing, overseeing, peer-reviewing, or reporting on the NNSA warhead complex has sufficient high-quality, pertinent, and objective information (and sufficient underlying policy clarity and guidance) about these programs to do his or her job -- even the most conscientious congressional staff (and you all are).  Appropriations should be firmly tied to targeted report requirements, without which much more fiscal waste and bungling is very likely.  Without clear reporting the political will to allow course corrections cannot be generated.  Among the darkest areas, the ones most in need of illumination, are the requirements for pit production infrastructure and for secondary production infrastructure, which have both led to repeated management failures costing at least one billion dollars so far just in the past decade, with more fiascoes in the pipeline in both cases.  
  • At NNSA, too much money, managed too poorly, is chasing too many projects, which are more complex than necessary, in a warhead complex which is too privatized and too redundant.  NNSA is choking and failing as a result.  Appropriators should feel very comfortable shorting Weapons Activities, as a relative scarcity of funds is necessary (but not sufficient) to induce more rational behavior and planning.  Sacred cows must be slain.  A 10% cut would be just the beginning of wisdom. 
  • Congress has been far too permissive and enabling as regards contractor mismanagement, waste, and fraud, which is now structural and therefore hidden.  Most of NNSA's mistakes are actually contractor mistakes enabled by a weak and incompetent NNSA -- and by all those parties which nominally oversee the whole, including Congress.  The pension fund cash pipeline is just one of many examples.  The thousands of students collectively employed at the three labs (who not infrequently have been family members of existing staff, historically at least) at exorbitant salaries (ranging up to an annualized $106K/yr) is just one more example out of so many others which might be cited. 
  • Clearly, first-tier decisions in NNSA warhead management include decisions about:
    • Two major infrastructure projects and the nature of programs they are to support: the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) and plutonium infrastructure;
    • Life Extension Programs (LEPs) -- the overall "3 + 2" paradigm as well as the specific LEPs immediately pending; and
    • The scale, budget, and ambitions in NNSA "science" and computation programs, e.g. NIF.
All these decisions have been badly bungled so far.  NNSA management needs a house-cleaning.
  • Focusing on plutonium pit capacity, it is far too soon to commit funds to the design of any new infrastructure at LANL.  The modular plan with its associated tunnel may be the riskiest and slowest path to new capacity, but neither NNSA nor LANS have any idea of what capacity is actually needed -- or what capacity exists.  The Congressional Research Service (CRS) is in the final stages of completing a report which will illuminate some aspects of this topic.  Better information is needed (and in some cases reports are pending) on:
    • Pit lifetimes in actual service and the surveillance warning times that are now or could be available for any stockpile problems;
    • Pit reuse options, particularly for any warhead for a Long-Range Stand-Off weapon, should one unfortunately be approved;
    • Better space utilization in PF-4 and in the new Radiological, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB, the labs in which are not being used);
    • Actual floor space requirements for analytical chemistry (AC) and materials characterization (MC) as a function of pit production rate, using modern (not the current decades-old) technology;
    • The environmental impact of all reasonable pit production alternatives, which is a legal requirement and management necessity.  Without the formality and openness of the full EIS process pit plans are almost certain to founder again as they have done for 25 years, and may be litigated (by us);
    • The sensitivity of pit production requirements and alternatives to differing stockpile futures, and the economies that might also be realized elsewhere in NNSA's projects and programs under these differing futures.   
    • The operating and life-cycle costs of new pit production facilities, i.e. modules and tunnels, vs. better management of existing facilities.
    • The capital cost, management risk, security issues and costs, and inevitable delays associated with new construction, i.e. modules and tunnels, vs. use of existing facilities.
    • The costs and benefits of close on-site transport of radiological samples by tunnel vs. by vehicle (as at present) vs. by walking.
    • The worker safety assumptions involved in the modular plan, including tunnels, and their relation to legal requirements and current practices.
    • The nature, cost, and schedule for upgrading PF-4 to meet current seismic requirements and its expected lifetime upon completion, with any unfixable aging mechanisms (e.g. concrete degradation) explored.   
    • The safety and legal issues involved in upgrading RLUOB to a Hazard Category 3 Nuclear Facility, which is a feature of the modular plan and some alternatives to it. 
    • How to promptly fix the safety management of PF-4, which has been largely shut down (again) for more than 6 months for numerous, increasing criticality safety violations this past spring.
    • Methods to reduce the Material At Risk (MAR) at PF-4 by better management; the schedule for doing so.
    • The future of Pu-238 activities at TA-55: is LANL the right place for that work?  Will DOE complete its Pu-238 EIS? 
    • Geopolitical and technical "surprises" as regards pit production -- realistically, what surprises can there be?  Warning times expected; contingency options available. 
    • The financial burden rate (overhead) historically and currently in place for M&O managed construction at LANL.  A briefing given by LANL to GAO in early 2013 suggests that it may be as much as 225% of actual construction dollars in some (most? all?) cases.  
  • Energy and Water appropriators need to find better, bigger, and faster ways to fund real climate protection and transportation fuel conservation initiatives in the Department of Energy (DOE) and elsewhere, or set the stage for doing so in 2014.  The associated dangers are extreme and urgent on both counts in their respective spheres  -- which are, for climate, the sum total of everything we hold dear including life itself and for transportation fuels, merely economic and social survival.  The true situation in these two matters is much more challenging than any mainstream discourse allows.  Weapons Activities, which is grossly over-funded and choking on its ambitious programs, is an obvious source of funding, as are the fat DOE science sinecures in the 050 account (NNSA) and outside it.  In the future, the Army Corps of Engineers might be the home for some new climate-oriented missions in the 050 account, a prospect which we have not explored but should.


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