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"Forget the Rest" blog

Better Way to Spend $2 Billion, or

Don’t Build a Plutonium “Bridge to Nowhere”

Greg Mello, op-ed published in the Albuquerque Journal, May 17, 2009

The Journal carried a critical editorial Monday about the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) slowdown of a planned new plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

Even prior to NNSA’s action the project’s overall goals (and design) had become uncertain.  NNSA didn’t stop the project, though that’s a good idea.

The building in question is called the “CMRR Nuclear Facility.”  It’s one of two buildings in the misnamed “Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement” project – misnamed because the CMRR would provide additional warhead capabilities, not just “replace” those to be retired.

Construction of the first CMRR building is nearly complete.  The Nuclear Facility is to be the second.  If built it would comprise about half the square footage and 90% of the total CMRR construction cost.

The Nuclear Facility would cost “at least” $2 billion.  Despite seven years of work on the project, NNSA has not been able to complete preliminary design or provide a stable cost estimate.

Using standard cost inflators, the Nuclear Facility would cost five times as much as any prior government construction project in New Mexico, excepting the interstate highways.

Because the project’s primary purpose is to design and build parts for a new warhead repeatedly rejected by Congress, labeled this project the nation’s “Boondoggle #1” earlier this spring.

The lab space it would provide will cost $89,000 per square foot – or $618 per square inch if you prefer.  LANL’s existing plutonium facility, with 2.6 times the space, cost $75 million in 1978, about $201 million in today’s dollars.  The Nuclear Facility would add 38% more plutonium space at 26 times the 1978 unit cost, assuming no further increases.

Department of Energy (DOE) dollars have better uses.  With $2 billion DOE could pay for about 2,000 megawatts of new wind generation capacity.  This would displace millions of tons of carbon pollution and save millions of gallons of fresh water every year henceforth.  It would create about 30,000 new jobs in manufacture, construction, and operation.

The same dollars used to subsidize state, local government, tribal, and private investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and building weatherization would go even further.

Infrastructure choices like this tell us a lot about who we are as a people and where we are going.

They also tell us about our leadership.  It will be interesting to see how our congressional delegation, all Democrats, come down on this.  “Green jobs,” or plutonium palace?  There is only so much money that can be wrung out of households.  Choices have to be made.

Our Democrats should be under no illusions about the CMRR.  The hawks on the recent Perry Commission certainly know exactly what it’s for: building new-design warheads, rapidly.  That’s why it’s their highest-priority warhead infrastructure project.  It’s the bellwether of the whole and they know it.  It’s not at all required to maintain even a very large arsenal of existing warheads for the indefinite future, as sad an outcome as that would be.

Los Alamos already has a modern plutonium facility, a quarter of which is occupied by a pit production line, largely idle.  This large facility has been continuously maintained; NNSA is requesting hundreds of millions to upgrade it. 

There is also a plutonium facility at Lawrence Livermore, bigger than the planned CMRR and soon to be mothballed as a high-security lab.  All talk of making more pits is madness, of course.

The Journal mistakenly called Obama’s nuclear weapons plan a “budget-cutting proposal.”  It’s not.  Obama would grow NNSA’s budget by 9% next year, a big increase.  Most of that growth is in nuclear nonproliferation, which would rise by 36%.  Nuclear weapon spending is flat.

For five years the House of Representatives has been saying this building and its rationale were not ready for prime time.  NNSA now agrees. 

We should rejoice at this baby step.  The CMRR Nuclear Facility would harm, not help, national security.

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