House Committee Weighs Future of LANL Plutonium Expansion
 

 

Press “backgrounder,” for immediate release, June 20, 2008

House Committee Weighs Future of LANL Plutonium Expansion

Udall Silent on Key Issue Affecting Lab, Congressional District

Congressional candidates: Miller’s view is clear; where is Lujan’s?

Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200
Peter Neils, 505-259-5437
Willem Malten, 505-920-1277

1. Background

Three days ago, on June 17, the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee (“HEWD”) completed its proposed markup of the President’s budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE), including National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) nuclear weapons programs (pdf) and the other spending categories in the Energy and Water Development bill.

Our press release of June 17 regarding some key issues expected in that markup is here.  Chairman Visclosky’s statement accompanying the markup gives a broad-brush account.  We summarize that statement below in tabular form. 

The full markup is not yet publicly available.  It is available to members of the House Appropriations Committee – including Rep. Tom Udall – who are scheduled to vote on it on Tuesday, June 24. 

It is possible that the roughly $400 million (M) cut by the HEWD from the President’s $6.6 billion (B) request for the (nuclear) “Weapons Activities” budget line includes cuts to plutonium warhead core (“pit”) production activities, including pit-related new construction, at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). 

Whether or not NNSA proceeds with approximately $3 billion in pit-production-related construction and demolition, and with a program of on-going plutonium pit production, are major issues defining the identity of LANL and its workforce.  They also greatly affect LANL’s environmental impact. 

These outcomes, many believe, will significantly affect LANL’s social, political, and economic role in the region.  They will also affect national nuclear weapons policy and impact the nonproliferation regime worldwide. 

The House Appropriations Committee, in actions subsequently endorsed by the House as a whole by tacit acceptance or wide margins, has either zeroed or deeply cut pit-production-related construction at LANL every year for the last 5 years. 

Last year, pit production operating funds, not just new construction, were cut 50% by the House, citing duplicative funding requests, NNSA’s assumed aggressive nuclear and infrastructure strategy, “ad hoc” planning and budgeting, unnecessary expenditures, and lack of accountability. 

The full history of last year’s appropriation bill, including last year’s HEWD markup, can be accessed here.  The five-year history of HEWD concerns about pit production construction at LANL, specifically the large Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) project, can be found here (pdf). 

Over this same 5-year period, these funds have been restored in whole or in part as a result of negotiations with the Senate, led by Pete Domenici on the Senate side.  

Last year, Congressman Tom Udall introduced an amendment to restore proposed nuclear weapons funding at LANL, including funding for pit production and related LANL construction.  This amendment failed by a wide margin.  Subsequent statements from various parties saying Mr. Udall “voted against” lab funding are true only in the very narrow (and meaningless) sense that he voted with a large majority for final passage of an appropriations bill which included earmarks he requested, a bill which he could no longer even attempt to change. 

This week, on June 18, Udall’s office issued a press release regarding the HEWD markup (“Udall Continues to Fight for New Mexico's National Laboratories,” not yet posted on his web site). 

In that press release Udall does not mention pit production, plutonium, or the construction of new facilities at LANL.  The congressman mentions his hopes for expanding the missions at LANL, specifically mentioning intelligence analysis, “homeland security,” “nuclear counterterrorism,” nuclear non-proliferation, and research into alternative energy.  Udall says he supports the labs overall and says he strongly supports environmental cleanup. 

This year’s HEWD markup would expand DOE nonproliferation programs by $300 M nationwide.  It is very likely that some of these additional funds, if finally approved, would come to LANL and Sandia National Laboratories (SNL). 

Plutonium pit production is a large program at LANL, with a voracious appetite for funds for new construction, security, waste management, and other ancillary and overhead expenses.  It is a major preoccupation of LANL and NNSA management.  It is not at all clear there will be sufficient funding to increase the program areas mentioned by Mr. Udall without curtailing the growth of pit production and its construction. 

The CMRR is also the largest construction project underway or proposed in New Mexico’s Third Congressional District by far, with a reported cost (as of February 2008) of more than $2.2 B.  Costs are still rising.  If funded as scheduled the project is to continue until the 2016 to 2018 timeframe, or possibly longer if subsequent demolition and disposal (D&D) of the contaminated Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) facility is included (as required per the FY2002 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act Report). 

D&D cost is currently estimated at about $400 M.  CMR D&D will sooner or later be needed with or without the CMRR. 

Thus with CMR D&D the total CMRR cost is now estimated by NNSA to be more than $2.6 B and rising.  No solid estimate of total project cost will even be available until February 2010, according to NNSA officials.  Further details and references can be found here.  

Concerns about the CMRR and pit production have been ramifying through official Washington this spring. 

On May 1, the Senate Armed Services Committee cut funds authorized for the CMRR project in half for FY2009, from a requested $100.2 M to $50 M, citing unresolved design uncertainties.  It was the only Weapons Activities construction project cut by that Committee.  Pit production authorized funds were also cut by 10%.  The press release describing their markup is here (pdf).  The Ranking Member of that Committee is John McCain. 

On May 7, the House Armed Services Committee authorized the full amount for the CMRR but cut authorized FY2009 funding for pit production by 25%.  Chairwoman Tauscher’s press release is here.

On May 16, Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) Chairman Dr. A. J. Eggenberger wrote NNSA regarding, among other things, DNFSB’s concerns regarding the lack of, and schedule for, an “objective assessment of programmatic alternatives” for LANL’s CMR missions (usually given by LANL as the raison d’etre for the CMRR building) as well as the lack of any “[identified] programmatic need to manufacture war reserve pits beyond the current campaign scheduled for completion in about 2010."  This letter is discussed in a June 11 Study Group letter to government officials. 

On May 23, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a detailed, and highly critical review of NNSA’s pit production plans (pdf) that raised a number of serious concerns about this program.  These issues were summarized in a Los Alamos Study Group press release of June 2, 2008

On May 30, the DNFSB raised serious questions (pdf) about the design of the CMRR Nuclear Facility (NF), confirming the concerns previously expressed by the Senate Armed Services Committee in its action to cut the project funding.  The single most troubling issue DNFSB cites is the effect of seismicity on design, for which DNFSB says the CMRR designers do not yet have a solution.  In principle the structural problems can always be solved, the Safety Board told us in a meeting in their offices; in practice the solutions (not apparent as of that date) may be very expensive. 

(The non-structural, operational impacts of seismic criteria are, we believe, another matter requiring close attention.) 

Even the White House has doubts about the CMRR and pit production.  In December of 2007 the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) wrote:

The DOE/NNSA is requesting funding in FY 2009 for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project.  This facility will be used to manufacture the central core of nuclear weapons, known as the "pit."  The DOE/NNSA has assumed a future production rate of 50 – 80 pits per year at Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, consistent with their preferred alternative for complex transformation.  Currently there is no formal agreement between DOE and DOD on production requirements, and thus no firm basis for setting a facility production capacity requirement. This requirement is the major cost driver for the facility.  (“Passback guidance to NNSA for budget request development,” Study Group files.  Emphasis added.)

For several decades LANL produced no pits for the stockpile.  In FY2007, possibly for the first time since the early 1950s, LANL produced 11 pits overall, of which 8 were “war reserve” pits (i.e. pits that enter the U.S. nuclear arsenal). 

In FY2008 NNSA hopes to produce 6 pits overall; presumably some will be “war reserve” pits.  According to the GAO study cited previously, NNSA has no requirement to produce more than a total of 18 war reserve pits, including the 8 produced last year.  Thus we can infer that NNSA has no requirement to produce war reserve pits after 2009 or 2010 at the latest, just as the DNFSB says. 

From the OMB and DNFSB documents cited, as well as from conversations with cognizant officials in Washington, we believe there are no external pit production requirements at all, i.e. no requirements beyond those invented by NNSA for itself. 

In any case this low-level production adds only trivially to U.S. nuclear capabilities; the 10 more W88 warheads sought by NNSA would add only about 2% to the W88 warhead inventory and about 0.1% to the warhead-plus-bomb inventory overall.  Current annual weapon dismantlement rates are on the order of 20 times this proposed production run.  All parties agree U.S. nuclear capabilities are quantitatively too great and most of the important actors, including both presidential candidates, wish to significantly decrease nuclear arsenals beyond the ~40% reduction currently planned. 

2. Where Does Udall Stand on Plutonium Pit Production and Related Construction ?

Tom Udall is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.  Consider these circumstances:

  • The House Appropriation Committee’s long-running disapproval of the CMRR project and actions it has taken over 5 successive years to halt or slow the project;

  • Their concerns last year about NNSA’s rush into expanded pit production and their action to cut pit production funds in half;

  • New concerns expressed (and actions taken) in the last 7 months by OMB, the House Armed Services Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, the GAO, and the DNFSB;

  • The greater-than-four-fold cost inflation now apparent in the CMRR project, with costs expected to rise even further in future years;

  • The fact that the CMRR project appropriations in FY2008 are sufficient to complete construction of the CMRR Radiological Laboratory, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB) without further appropriation (except for its internal special facility equipment, SFE); and finally

  • The intense competition for funds in the Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, which is also the primary federal funding mechanism for renewable energy R&D, home weatherization assistance, flood control, and a host of other important programs.

Given these circumstances, it is very likely that if Tom Udall does not want a very expensive expansion of pit production in his district (via the CMRR and related capital projects and associated increased operating expenses), that expansion is unlikely to happen.  Udall probably has effective “veto power” in this case. 

Yet throughout it all – and despite an outpouring of popular concern from many parts of his District, too great to fully characterize in this press advisory – Tom Udall has maintained a strict silence on these questions. 

The following interaction with Mr. Udall was reported by Gail Raborn in Taos.

I had an unpleasant talk with Tom Udall in a public "meet and greet" gathering he had shortly before the [June primary] elections. I asked him if he supported pit production at LANL - after another woman had asked him, and he'd not answered her, but swiftly diverted the question to the issue of international nuclear disarmament, which he says he supports - and he got quite angry and very rude with me, tried to change the subject by saying pit production had been going on for twenty years - and I shouldn't mention it if I didn't know the facts, repeating that many times – then denied having anything to do with getting funding reallocated for LANL's budget (was I wrong here?) and told me I was getting "lost in the weeds" when being concerned with LANL for really only the BIG picture of international nuclear disarmament mattered...I kept asking him, "Do you support pit production at LANL and the Complex Transformations plan to increase it?" - and he did say under his breath, he didn't support INCREASED pit production...then repeated very angrily that I shouldn't be so concerned with the "weeds" (pit production is only "weeds", not important?) - then brushed me off and told me he wouldn't argue with me. He then turned away and asked for other questions.

Study Group Director Greg Mello: “What are Tom Udall’s views about plutonium pit production and the massive CMRR project, which looms large in what LANL might become?  Given all the new, negative information which has recently emerged from official government sources about these projects, have Representative Udall’s views changed since last year?”

3. Where Do the Congressional Candidates Stand?

The Los Alamos Study Group does not endorse candidates for office.  We can however report what we know. 

On March 31, Carol Miller issued a 3-page formal position paper entitled “Presidential and Congressional Candidates Hide from U.S. Nuclear Proliferation,” which states her views (this statement is not on her web site but was widely circulated by email.)

In it she says:

The US media goes on endlessly about the weapons developments of countries that our government does not like….What don’t we see or hear about? The massive expansion of US nuclear bomb manufacturing underway here at home right now.

…Despite public opposition to nuclear weapons, the government is moving forward with greatly increasing the number of new nuclear bombs made each year primarily in the New Mexico – Texas Panhandle region.

…The government has continued to invest endless dollars in warfare, the nuclear bomb industry and the space warfare industry. And now one department [DOE] has begun the most enormous infrastructure project since the first Cold War.  

The Real Alternative: Schools, Highway Repairs, Mass Transit, Drinking Water Systems, Environmental Restoration, Renewable Energy, Fighting Global Warming - and More.

Infrastructure investment in the common good is best medicine for the ailing economy. Rebuilding and modernizing the nation’s infrastructure will create hundreds of thousands of home grown jobs. Important, well paying jobs, jobs that cannot be outsourced to another country.

We see the proof of these needs all around us. Highway bridges collapse, levees break in Hurricane Katrina and thousands of people are permanently displaced, their livable homes bulldozed, boil orders proliferate from outdated water systems that sicken people instead of nourishing them.

…The purpose of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction is to very expensively build something - every step of which is toxic to the environment and workforce – that should never be used and has no role whatsoever in a country crying out for real peace.

…Trillions of dollars have been wasted on perfecting the technology of killing more people. Enough is enough.

These policy views are completely in line with long-held Study Group conclusions. 

We have not been able to discover any statements, either in press archives, on his web site, or elsewhere, that Democratic Party candidate Ben Ray Lujan has made about nuclear weapons, plutonium pit production, or the CMRR facility.  We have also called his campaign office twice in the past few months but have not yet received a return call.  (We will call again.)

The third declared candidate, like Miller an independent, is Ron Simmons.  He has no web site and we have not been able to discover any public statements he may have made on these subjects. 

4.  Short summary of Study Group perspectives on pit production operating and capital project issues

That can be found here.

5.  Known Elements of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Markup (as of 6/20/08)

 

Known Elements of the House Energy and Water Development (HEWD) Markup for FY2009

Preliminary Amounts from Chairman Visclosky’s Press Statement.  In millions of current-year dollars.

 

FY 2009
Congressional
Request

FY2008
Current

HEWD
Mark

Amount HEWD Mark over request

Total Energy and Water Development

31,186.7

30,888

33,265

2,078.3

 

 

 

 

 

Vehicle Technology Research

221

213

305

84

Biomass and Biorefinery systems research

225

198

250

25

Renewable Fuel Infrastructure Grants

0

0

25

25

Energy Efficiency Block Grants

0

0

295,000

295

Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Incentive Program
(direct loan obligational authority)

0

0

"sufficient"

N/A

 

 

 

 

 

Energy efficiency and renewable energy (total)

1,260

1,723.9

2,520

1,260

Renewable energy and conservation R&D

1,201

 

1,570

369

Federal energy assistance programs

58

 

318

260

 

 

 

 

 

Fossil Energy R&D (total)

754

 

853

99.6

Nuclear energy R&D

 

 

 

 

GEN IV nuclear reactor technology

70

 

200

130

GNEP

?

?

0

-?

Advanced Nuclear Fuel Cycle

?

?

120

?

 

 

 

 

 

Science (total)

4,720

4,016

4,860

140

"Climate Change and scientific computing"

524

 

539

15

 

 

 

 

 

Loan guarantees for energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies ($18.5 billion in loans; appropriation unknown)

?

?

?

?

 

 

 

 

 

Weapons Activities

6,600

 

6,200

-400

 

 

 

 

 

Nonproliferation

1,200

 

1,500

300

 

 

 

 

 

Environmental Management

 

 

 

221.5

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

 

 

 

592

Dept. of Interior Bureau of Reclamation

 

 

 

109


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