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Pit Stop

US House budget would curtail LANL funding

August 31, 2011

Wren Abbott

Los Alamos National Laboratory, at which the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility and Transuranic Waste Facility are to be housed, sits on a major geological fault.

Two controversial Los Alamos National Laboratory construction projects will take big hits if a budget bill passed by the US House of Representatives is signed into law next month.

The House Committee on Appropriations’ energy and water development budget bill, passed last month, slashes $100 million from the 2012 budget request for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility, a plutonium processing plant planned at LANL. The committee also recommended no funding for construction of the Transuranic Waste Facility, a companion building to the CMRR that would house radioactive by-products of plutonium pit production. 

Those two projects are the only National Nuclear Security Administration sites nationwide that the House voted not to fully fund. NNSA is a branch of the US Department of Energy that handles military applications of nuclear technology.

The committee’s concerns dovetail with those voiced by local antinuclear proliferation activists who have long railed against the CMRR. Chief among those sticking points are the facility’s projected $6 billion price tag and safety issues associated with housing more than 13,000 pounds of plutonium. The report the committee released along with the bill also lends credence to growing concerns about the CMRR’s proposed siting on a major geologic fault line.

A LANL spokesman referred SFR to NNSA for comment; an NNSA spokesman didn’t return a call before press time.

The remaining $200 million that the bill would appropriate for the CMRR would fund design and engineering, but not construction because LANL “must first resolve major seismic issues” with the design and reassess which functions are necessary at the proposed facility.

A 2007 seismic analysis of the proposed site found a much higher level of risk than was estimated in the 1990s. The new analysis found that the Pajarito fault line, a geologic formation where seismic activity is concentrated, intersects with other smaller faults that would magnify the motion if Pajarito ruptured.

At a June CMRR public forum in Santa Fe, geologist Robert Gilkeson stated that LANL’s environmental impact statement didn’t take into account the full seismic risk, and said the proposed site could be hit by an earthquake with a magnitude over 7.5.

Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, says the Department of Energy had an “extremely optimistic” notion of Los Alamos’ seismic potential when it decided to locate plutonium processing facilities here.

“Then they put all the data together that they’ve amassed and realized Los Alamos was capable of some pretty damn big earthquakes,” Mello says.

LANL’s 2008 evaluation of the facility notes that changes in design criteria as a result of the new seismic data “have the potential for major project impact,” and said costs would “increase significantly” as the design was upgraded accordingly. 

The budget bill associates “continued cost escalation” with NNSA construction projects in general and notes the need to monitor such projects “to ensure that prudent project management practices are followed and…to ensure that taxpayer funds are not wasted.”

The fact that the CMRR’s expected cost has jumped from $600 million to $6 billion seems to support the committee’s concerns. Bechtel Corp., one of the contractors operating LANL, also operates the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, which cost almost double its $5.8 billion projected construction price.

The committee’s directive to re-evaluate the CMRR’s proposed functions also substantiates concerns about the facility’s purpose. By LANL’s own estimate, the CMRR won’t be in operation until 2023, by which time the Department of Energy may already have finished upgrading existing warheads, nuclear technology expert David Overskei said at a nuclear defense summit earlier this year. The budget bill’s accompanying report actually states that fully funding NNSA’s proposed construction projects would compromise efforts to upgrade the warheads, not support them.

“Every nuclear weapon in the US stockpile will have been refurbished by [2023] without this building…One of the questions some insiders ask is, ‘Isn’t this building a little too late?’” Mello says.

The bill also reduces environmental cleanup funding at LANL, even as it allots extra cleanup funding at other sites. The committee’s report states that the budget aims to preserve cleanup funding at all of the sites “at the highest possible levels,” with less than a 1 percent funding reduction from fiscal year 2011. Yet LANL was allotted $174 million less for cleanup than NNSA requested—a 20 percent reduction from FY 2011 levels. The report cites the DOE’s failure to “develop a comprehensive plan for cleanup of legacy waste” at LANL, states that the cost of remediation is “uncertain,” and directs DOE to submit a more detailed cleanup plan before receiving more remediation funding.

“They can’t make decisions about cleanup because we don’t have the basic groundwater monitoring networks around these [legacy waste] dumps,” Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, says. 

Although Jay Coghlan, executive director at Nuclear Watch New Mexico, calls the bill’s partial defunding of LANL activities “definitely significant,” he is only cautiously optimistic. The Senate hasn’t voted on a similar bill since FY 2009; if the bill doesn’t pass after the Senate reconvenes Sept. 5, Congress will use a continuing resolution that typically keeps funding at prior years’ levels until a formal appropriations bill becomes law. 

“It’s always unpredictable to say where Congress is going to come out; there’s a good chance the House cuts could stand given all the fiscal pressures,” Coghlan says. But he warns that the “super committee” created to try to find $1.2 trillion in budget cuts to reduce the US deficit adds another complication. “One of the 12 congressmen on the ‘super committee’ is Sen. Jon Kyl [R-Ariz.], and he’s been the main architect of so-called modernization of the nuclear weapons complex.”

Mello warns that, if the budget cuts don’t stand, construction on the CMRR could start as early as October 1.

“If they get that $100 million for early construction…they’ll want to start pouring cement as soon as possible because then it becomes more and more difficult to stop these projects,” Arends says.

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