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"Forget the Rest" blog

For Immediate Release November 15, 2010

NNSA halts procurement on plutonium warhead factory, "modernization" centerpiece at Los Alamos

Study Group files motion to halt further investment in facility pending resolution of its lawsuit

Meanwhile Obama administration promises another multi-billion dollar spending increase for nuke weapons "modernization;"
Funding package to cover latest cost increases in weapons complex modernization in exchange for possible treaty votes

Contact: Greg Mello or Darwin BondGraham, 505-265-1200

Recent Background:

▪   Procurements Related to CMRR-NF Process on Hold Due to NEPA Review, Nuclear Weapons Materials Monitor, (pdf 160KB) Nov 15, 2010 (with permission)

▪   White House pledges another $4.1b for weapons complex modernization, Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor 11/12/10 (paywall)

▪   White House makes offers to break nuclear arms treaty impasse, source says, Desmond Butler, Associated Press, 11/13/10

▪   Sources: $4 billion bid to save START, Mary Beth Sheridan, Walter Pincus, Washington Post, 11/13/10

▪  CMRR litigation materials and CMRR web site, Los Alamos Study Group, both under active development. 

More details in today’s letter to Senate, below.

ALBUQUERQUE, NM - The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has said it is halting (new) procurement (pdf) on its big new plutonium facility at Los Alamos, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF). 

According to the agency, no contracts will be let for site preparation, infrastructure and construction, but design work will move ahead.  The pause is expected to last until June 2011. 

With the end of new procurement for LANL's massive CMRR-NF, it is unclear on what the lab will spend its new tranche of Continuing Resolution funds ($338 million), not to mention the proposed $300 million more for FY2012, unveiled on Friday.

In response a lawsuit filed in Federal District Court by the Los Alamos Study Group, NNSA initiated a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) purportedly to update its NEPA analysis of the CMRR-NF.  At this late stage of project development, halting procurement is required by law. 

Study Group director Greg Mello: "We are very pleased to hear NNSA is halting new procurement on their CMRR Nuclear Facility.  To comply with the law they must also stop design work under existing contracts, in order to not further commit the agency to the project they have illegally chosen and begun without an applicable environmental impact statement.  An objective evaluation needs to be done and NNSA has not done it. 

"It seems unbelievable to the average person that the federal government would be squandering this kind of money on an underground concrete monolith to make more, and different, nuclear weapons.  Wake up, New Mexico -- this is not business as usual.  This facility will cost six times what the whole Manhattan Project in New Mexico cost, in constant dollars. 

"We are stuck in a "World War II economy" here.  This giant project, if built, will make sure we remain stuck for decades to come."
In briefings to Congressional staff on Friday the Obama administration promised an additional $4.1 billion funding increase for US nuclear weapons programs over the next 5 years, with much of the money to be spent at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico.  This latest proposed increase is in addition to a proposed ten-year $10 billion funding boost promised by the administration in the spring.  It was first reported Friday evening by the Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor, an industry publication. 

Together these proposed budget increases would result in an $84.1 billion budget for US nuclear weapons programs within the Department of Energy over the coming decade.  Much of the increase is intended to bail out two major construction projects that continue to experience enormous cost over-runs, safety and design issues, environmental, and legal problems - the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at LANL, and the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Y-12 (Tennessee).  Both proposed buildings are at the center of a plan to "modernize" the nuclear weapons complex by investing in costly new infrastructure.  These two buildings are now expected to cost about $11 billion. 

The latest $4.1 billion dollar promise by the Obama administration is intended to buy votes for the New START treaty's ratification in the US Senate during the lame duck period and was timed and briefed accordingly.  Since April, New START has languished in the Senate, even as the Administration has promised more money for nuclear modernization demanded by Senate Republicans.  At the center of opposition to New START is Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona who has demanded a roughly $20 billion increase for the NNSA budget to ensure both weapons complex and stockpile modernization.  A senior Pentagon administrator and the head of the US Strategic Command Gen. Kevin Chilton traveled to Arizona on Friday to brief Senator Kyl on the latest proposed budget increase.

If implemented the $4.1 billion boost would add an additional $300 million per year for Los Alamos, on top of the additional $338 million in weapons funding Los Alamos received on October 1 as part of an exception within the Continuing Resolution that is currently funding the federal government. Over two years, the $638 million/year increase plus the new $820 million/year increase, if funded by Congress, would apparently increase LANL’s nuclear weapons appropriations by 49% from the FY2010 level of $1.30 billion.  These increases would dramatically increase the scale of LANL's weapons program and change the lab's character to more of a plutonium production site, with associated waste staging and disposal. 

The administration is considering seeking approval for "front funding" of the CMRR Nuclear Facility and UPF.  Front funding would entail a multiyear block of funding, or even the total project cost, delivered in one year, to be spent over the ten-year-plus design and construction timeframe for CMRR-NF.  The CMRR-NF, however, does not yet have a final total cost estimate.  Members of Congress are unlikely to agree with this plan.

This horse trading process – billions for modernization in exchange for New START ratification – has become more strained since the midterm elections.  The so-called consensus for ratification has begun to unravel as Republican demands for larger nuclear weapons budgets run up against the administration's ability to deliver funds, and also fiscal and environmental problems threatening to derail the modernization agenda regardless of the treaty.

Press release ends here, Senate letter begins

November 15, 2010

Re:      The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico:

▪   The project is plagued by design problems, cost overruns, delays, and litigation (by us).

▪   The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has halted project procurement.

▪   The Department of Energy (DOE) has announced a new study of project requirements.

▪   Simpler, cheaper, quicker, better alternatives are available.

Dear Senator –

            I am writing in regard to the proposed upgrades in plutonium capabilities at Los Alamos.  We urge you to reconsider Congress’s fiscal commitment to the CMRR-NF, which has suffered obscene cost increases.  NNSA needs to study alternatives to this project, not implement it.  It is already a fiasco and shows every sign of getting worse.  If the project were strongly justified it would gain credibility from objective oversight.  We believe it is not well-justified.  The Administration is rushing toward failure.

            The LANL upgrades involve several line item construction projects within NNSA’s Weapons Activities account, the centerpiece of which is the $5-6 billion CMRR-NF project (Project 04-D-125). 

            This modernization is a key political expectation as Senate leaders consider taking up New START ratification in the lame duck session.  Some kind of plutonium modernization will no doubt occur, but it may not be what the Administration currently intends and promises.  Difficulties and costs are mounting for CMRR-NF, increasing doubts about the present course and making alternatives reasonable.  Increasing the funds available cannot solve all the problems, and might make some worse – just digging a deeper fiscal hole as it were, while threatening morale and scientific recruitment. 

            Most if not all the LANL plutonium-related upgrades lack performance baselines at this time, including CMRR-NF, so there is no real way to know what they will cost or when they will be completed.  The CMRR-NF is to begin construction in 2011, some 2-3 years prior to completing a baseline. 

            The CMRR radiological laboratory, utility, and office building (CMRR-RLUOB) has been built and is being outfitted.  The CMRR-NF, by contrast, has encountered strong headwinds. 

▪   Expected completion has slipped more than a decade to 2020 at the earliest, plus a 2-year prove-in period (pdf, p. 4) and an estimated 4-year transition period (pdf, p. 2-38)

▪   Better-researched seismic hazards, unconsolidated volcanic ash beneath the building, and the requirement for safety-class equipment have caused design difficulties. 

▪   Overall cost has increased by a factor of about 16 so far. Estimated cost has doubled just since the Obama Administration took office.  This affidavit (at ¶10) discusses this increase and more. 

▪   Total program space has decreased from 60,000 sq. ft. to 38,500 sq. ft.[1] 

▪   Lab space will now cost roughly $250,000/sq. ft. 

▪   LANL has estimated annual operational and maintenance costs for CMRR-NF, exclusive of the programs it would house, at about 2.5% of replacement value, about $140 million per year. 

▪   Gross building area has almost doubled. 

▪   Quantities of concrete and steel have increased by factors of 116 and 77, respectively, since 2003.

▪   Excavation to 125 ft. is now necessary, involving road closure and relocation as well as busing or temporary workplaces for up to LANL 4,400 employees.

▪   Environmental litigation to halt investment in the facility has been filed by this organization under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and is being diligently pursued.  DOE has agreed to write a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) (pdf).  In sworn testimony NNSA claims not to be committed to the project yet (pdf, ¶23), a legal requirement.

▪   Last week NNSA halted procurement on the project (pdf) until it’s SEIS is concluded in June 2011.  Plaintiffs seek a de novo EIS, a preliminary injunction on all investment until a decision can be rendered and a permanent injunction until an EIS covering reasonable alternatives is written. 

▪   Despite promises of employment there is local government (pdf) and tribal (pdf) concern. 

▪   DOE Secretary Chu has commissioned a new study of project requirements (pdf), to report early next year.[2]

            We believe there are alternatives to this building which are simpler, cheaper, quicker, and better.  Not long ago, DOE thought so too (pdf, p. 24). CMRR-NF is just not necessary (pdf) to safely maintain the present large and diverse nuclear arsenal.  This truth has been politically suppressed during the present New START ratification debate but may not remain so forever, given the above problems. 

            The sole coherent justification for this facility is to assist in the certification and manufacture of plutonium pits, of which the U.S. has a surfeit for every nuclear delivery system.  There is a scientific consensus at NNSA’s weapons laboratories that pits do not wear out or age, except over long times. 

            Meanwhile LANL’s existing plutonium facility, with greater program space than CMRR-NF, is being upgraded in another line item to facilitate greater pit manufacturing rates. 

            Alternatives to CMRR-NF are numerous.  They begin with more closely questioning the need for large-scale pit production, given what NNSA now knows (pdf).

            Delay can buy time to examine alternatives more closely.  Delay is prudent and will save money.  A decade’s delay would save $1 billion in present value, given the facility’s expected high operating cost. 

            While NNSA’s budget as lately augmented (unnecessarily so, given its wasteful management) can absorb some cost overruns, NNSA is presently contemplating several simultaneous large new programs and construction projects.  Management risk is high in this situation.  NNSA has been on the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO’s) “Watch List” for bad project management for 19 years.  In all these projects, contractors who will profit are assisting in defining requirements.  CMRR-NF is no exception. 

            Further detailed information is available from our court submittals and web site.  Thank you for your attention.  We are ready to help however we can. 



[1] Hazard Category (HazCat) II space, where over 900 grams of weapons plutonium can be handled.  Originally there was to be an additional 60,000 sq. ft. of HazCat III space for handling plutonium in quantities up to 900 grams.  This space has been eliminated from the CMRR design.

[2] It may be of interest that NNSA has abandoned three wings of the existing 7-wing Chemistry and Metallurgy (CMR) building and expects to use at least one remaining wing indefinitely, undercutting the original justification for the project.  Some remaining CMR missions have already been transferred into LANL’s main plutonium facility.  Others will be transferred to the modern laboratories in the RLUOB in 2013.

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