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"Forget the Rest" blog

Conspicuous Construction

April 13, 2010
Greg Mello

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) have begun what the Obama Administration and many other parties hope will ultimately turn out to be at least a $5.5 billion program of reinvestment, replacement, upgrade, and expansion at LANL’s plutonium facilities, to take place over the next 12 years. 

This expansion involves five or more new or upgraded buildings and includes new labs, vaults, experimental capabilities, production support and waste management facilities. 

The biggest project in this grand plan is a $4.2 billion production and experimental support and storage annex to be built mostly underground.  It is a kind of bunker in which a small core of laboratories and vaults – the holy of holies as it were – will rest in the geometric center of a massive support complex to be built with some 355,000 cubic yards of concrete and tens of thousands of tons of steel.  It goes by the awkward name “Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility” (CMRR-NF) – the “Nuclear Facility,” for short.  Initial construction is slated to start next year. 

The foundation of Nuclear Facility is to be laid 125 feet deep, where some sixty vertical feet of concrete are to be emplaced at the bottom of the two-acre building.  Most or perhaps all of the sand and gravel in this concrete, together with the Portland cement, must be trucked in. 

The $5 billion CMRR project as a whole consists of this Nuclear Facility, a “light” lab and office facility already built and now being outfitted, and the demolition of an old, partially abandoned nuclear facility. 

New Mexicans do not grasp the scale of this tax-dollar commitment – or what little we get from it.   In constant dollars the CMRR project is now about ten  times the size of any government project ever built or planned in New Mexico, except the interstate highways.  No final cost and schedule estimate has yet been produced by the hard-working project team despite eight years of work, which reflects the project’s scale and complexity, so the cost could go up.  When it began in 2002, the projected cost was just one-tenth what it is today and completion was expected by 2011 – an 11-year slippage so far. 

Over this period, project engineers have had to deal with dramatic changes in what we know about local seismicity.  NNSA has also been struggling to incorporate safety standards used in the commercial nuclear industry – but not heretofore at LANL. 

This huge and far-reaching investment, if pursued to the bitter end, would inevitably change the identity of LANL and nearby communities over the coming decade and afterwards.  It would have profound implications for New Mexico as a whole.  It is already affecting U.S. nuclear policy and it is gaining attention in the nonproliferation community, where it will complicate U.S. objectives. 

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

Neither assertion is remotely true.  The integrated capability of the planned plutonium complex would greatly exceed what has ever been present at LANL.  What is being “replaced” is something the U.S. hasn’t seen in two decades: a production plant for plutonium warhead cores (“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 present plan would arrive at the same destination by a subtler path. 

The facilities to be built are “modern,” but their primary purpose is outmoded.  LANL’s own experts have been at the forefront of a scientific consensus that warhead “pits,” the manufacture of which is the primary purpose of the new investments, will last at least until the waning decades of this century– essentially forever in current planning terms.  Unless novel pits for novel kinds of warheads are to be made there is no reason to make any at all – except, perhaps, to remember how to do it.  For that, no new facilities are needed.  LANL is making a few pits today, more than enough to “remember how.”  Manufacturing for the stockpile has great costs and risks.  It can easily be, and should be, terminated. 

Thousands of reusable pits are currently held in a rapidly-growing reserve (kept at the Pantex plant, near Amarillo), where they comprise just a fraction of the backup options maintained for each and every warhead and bomb deployed.  These are pits from fully-tested designs.  Novel pits, should they be made, cannot be fully tested without triggering a cascade of nuclear proliferation around the world. 

These new facilities are needed to make what Bush’s appointees (who are now Obama’s appointees) once called the “Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW).  Obama’s recent Nuclear Posture Review, and the remarks offered by Secretary Gates and General Chilton of STRATCOM in the press conference that released it, only add to a large body of evidence in recent budget requests, legislation and official remarks confirming that 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 projects are also meant for possible “surge” production of warheads in quantity. 

Some deferred maintenance and reinvestment are needed to improve the safety of LANL’s basic plutonium operations.  The CMRR-NF, far too costly and already conceptually discredited, is not needed for this purpose.  We build this immense monument to folly, obsolete before it is begun, at our very great peril. 

If we do build it, don’t ask where the money went for the schools we need, or the climate- and business-saving infrastructure, or the health and elder-care.  We will have buried our hopes for a better future in a pit on the mesa.

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