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LANL’s New Plutonium Lab Delayed

By John Fleck / Journal Staff Writer on Sat, Dec 24, 2011

The start of construction on a new plutonium laboratory at Los Alamos will be delayed at least a year because of a congressional decision to throttle back funding for the project and restrict how the money can be spent.

The congressional action also raises questions about the long-term prospects for the new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility.

Lab and federal officials have been tight-lipped in the wake of the decision this month to allocate $200 million for the project, rather than the $300 million the administration requested for fiscal year 2012. Congress also restricted the funding, saying none of it could be used to start construction.

“No construction activities are funded for the CMRR-Nuclear Facility during Fiscal Year 2012,” the final congressional action said. The language was contained in a Dec. 15 final conference committee report outlining funding for the U.S. government for fiscal 2012, which began Oct. 1.

The money will allow Los Alamos to finish installing equipment in the project’s already-built first phase, a lab and office building, a National Nuclear Security Administration spokesman said in a statement. The rest would apparently go to design work on the larger second phase, a laboratory for work with plutonium, a dangerously radioactive metal used in nuclear weapons, but construction on that second phase is prohibited.

“In the FY12 budget constrained environment, we are pleased the CMRR project … will be able to remain on plan to finish equipping the Radiological Laboratory and Utility Office Building ahead of schedule, and substantially complete CMRR-NF design later this year,” Josh McConaha said in a statement. “The conference agreement did delay the FY12 construction activities for the CMRR-NF, which will defer the first phases of construction for CMRR-NF.”

Lab officials referred questions about the budget to NNSA, and McConaha did not respond to inquiries this week regarding details of the agency’s plans for spending the $200 million.

The nuclear facility, with an estimated price tag of $3.7 billion to $5.7 billion, has been plagued by delays and rising costs. Even before the congressional vote to delay construction, plans called for completion in 2023, more than a decade behind the original schedule when the project was launched.

Lab and federal documents suggest the construction to be deferred this year includes preliminary excavation work, the start of construction on a concrete plant for the massive structure and erection of the project’s construction management trailers.

In all, the lab has issued at least 45 notices to potential bidders regarding possible contracting opportunities on the project, according to a review by Trish Williams-Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, which opposes the project. In addition to construction-related opportunities, the announcements include plans for acquiring equipment for the building for things like fire safety systems and guard facilities.

While cutting from the administration’s funding request for the nuclear facility, Congress gave full funding to a similar multibillion dollar project being built in Tennessee for work on uranium nuclear weapon parts.

That move led some observers to speculate that Congress may be setting the stage for further delays in the Los Alamos plutonium lab because of concerns the agency cannot afford to work on both large projects simultaneously.

“Simultaneous construction of these projects is considered difficult to impossible by many in government,” Greg Mello, of the Los Alamos Study Group, wrote in a letter to supporters this week. “Up to now at least, CMRR-NF has been the NNSA’s highest priority infrastructure project. Congress, authorizers and appropriators alike, and in both the House and Senate, evidently think differently, at least for the time being."

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