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"Forget the Rest" blog

By Greg Mello    Los Alamos Study Group

April 21, 2010    

The National Nuclear Security Administration has begun a $4.7 billion program of replacement and expansion of the Los Alamos plutonium facilities, involving at least five buildings.   

It includes new labs, vaults, experimental capabilities, production support and waste facilities.   

The biggest project is a $3.4 billion semi-underground production and storage annex, a bunker with a small core of labs and vaults in the middle of a massive, hugely complicated building involving over 350,000 yards of concrete and tens of thousands of tons of steel.   

It’s called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility — the Nuclear Facility for short.    Construction could start next year. Its 2-acre foundation would be 125 feet deep. Sixty feet of solid concrete would go in below the lowest rooms. Most of the sand and gravel in all this concrete, maybe all, and the portland cement, would be trucked in from somewhere.   

In constant dollars, the Nuclear Facility would cost at least eight times as much as any government project ever built or planned in New Mexico, except the interstate highways. And its cost might rise.   

No final cost and schedule has been produced, despite eight years of work; none is expected for at least another two years. Estimates of past and future seismicity have risen dramatically. NNSA has been struggling to incorporate commercial nuclear safety standards, not always followed at Los Alamos.   

In 2002 the projected cost was one-eighth what it is today. Then, completion was expected by 2011. Now, it’s 2022.   
This huge and far-reaching investment, if pursued to the bitter end, would inevitably change the identity of LANL and that of nearby communities. It would have profound implications for New Mexico as a whole.   

It is already affecting U.S. nuclear policy and gaining attention internationally, where it will complicate U.S. objectives.   

The press, the White House and Congress are being lulled into thinking this project is somehow necessary to maintain U.S. nuclear weapons and merely a replacement for what LANL has had all along.   

Neither is true. The integrated capability of the planned plutonium complex would greatly exceed anything that has ever been present at LANL.   

What is being replaced is something the United States hasn’t seen in two decades and doesn’t need: a production plant for plutonium warhead cores, or “pits.” What Obama wants to build in New Mexico is — in scale, capacity, function and budget — exactly what George W. Bush also wanted to build, a modern pit facility.   

The facilities are to be modern, but their primary purpose is outmoded.   

LANL’s own experts have been at the forefront of a scientific consensus saying that warhead pits will last until the waning decades of this century if not longer — essentially forever for planning purposes.   

Unless novel pits for novel warheads are made, there is no reason to make any at all — except, perhaps, to remember how. For that, new facilities are not needed. LANL is making a few pits today, more than enough to remember how.   

Manufacturing pits for the stockpile has great costs and risks and no national security benefit. It should be terminated.   

Thousands of reusable pits are currently held in a rapidly growing reserve. These comprise just one aspect of the multifaceted redundancy and back-up plans maintained for each and every deployed warhead and bomb. These stored pits are from fully-tested designs. Novel pits, should they be made, could never be fully tested without triggering a worldwide cascade of nuclear proliferation.   

The Nuclear Facility is needed for large-scale production of what was once called the Reliable Replacement Warhead. And this is precisely the plan, again under other names.   

Plans for different warheads are alive and well — as are plans for the new and upgraded delivery systems they are meant to inhabit. Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review says the new infrastructure to be built in New Mexico, Tennessee and elsewhere is also meant for possible surge production of warheads, production in quantity.   

Some reinvestment is needed to improve the safety of LANL’s current plutonium operations. The Nuclear Facility, far too costly and conceptually discredited, is not needed for this.   

We build this immense monument to folly at our great peril. If we build it, don’t ask where the money went for the schools we need, or for the climate- and business-saving infrastructure, or for our health and elder care.   

We will have buried our hopes for a better future in a pit on the mesa.  



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