US House budget
would curtail LANL funding
August 31, 2011
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
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
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  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,
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.