By John Severance
Saturday, May 26, 2012 at 11:32 am (Updated: May 26, 7:58 pm)
More details have emerged concerning the Senate Armed Services Committee’s decision to authorize $150 million to the Chemistry Metallurgy Research Replacement facility for FY13.
According to sources close to the situation, the bill also requires NNSA to study combining the CMRR-NF project with potential replacement of LANL’s main plutonium facility (PF-4), a suggestion also reported in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of the CMRR project.
In addition, NNSA would retain management of the project unlike the corresponding House Bill, which transferred control of the project to the Department of Defense.
The talk in Washington is that the senate plan offered a pointed rebuke of the Administration’s plan to zero out funding defer work on the project for at least five years and use several alternatives to meet the nation’s plutonium needs. That includes using the Lawrence Livermore’s Superblock Facility, the Nevada National Security Site’s Device Assembly Facility and Los Alamos’ brand-new Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building.
“The Obama administration has said it is committed to ensuring that Los Alamos National Laboratory has a state-of-the-art plutonium facility,” Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) said late Friday. “There are competing visions in Congress and the administration about getting us on a track to replace the aging CMR building.
“However, there is no disagreement on the need to make sure LANL remains the nation’s center for plutonium technology and research. The outstanding questions are about timing and cost to replace the CMR. I will be working with my colleagues on the committees of jurisdiction to ensure the funding is in place to maintain all critical near-term operations at LANL and for meeting the lab’s long-term needs,” Bingaman said.
A Congressional aide told the trade publication Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor that “Shipping plutonium around the United States doesn’t make good sense. Spending a billion dollars on this alternative strategy plus another $2 to $3 billion if you have to eventually bring the (CMRR-NF) project back, and you’re not satisfying all the baseline capabilities at Los Alamos—it didn’t add up.”
NNSA spokesperson Josh McConaha did not comment on the story. And typically, the lab does not comment on bills until they became law.
As expected, the various nuclear watchdog groups had plenty to say.
Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group said, “It’s very easy for parochial interests on the armed services committees to plus up weapons programs, since they don’t have to make the budget balance. What offsets does this committee propose? Why are these two committees requesting a giant project that none of the responsible agencies actually wants right now? If there is one thing that government analysts stressed to me last year, it was that there was ‘no way on God’s green earth’ that NNSA could build CMRR-NF while also undertaking UPF and its big life extension projects. This committee is setting NNSA up to fail.”
Paul Gessing, Executive Director of the Rio Grande Foundation, said, “Ronald Reagan once said that “a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth!” Nowhere is this statement truer than in the case of the CMRR-NF.
“With Washington at least theoretically attempting to reduce the federal budget deficit, the CMRR-NF has been targeted repeatedly by Obama and Congress, only to have some in New Mexico’s congressional delegation swoop in to rescue the program, seemingly for no other reason than in a misguided attempt to preserve the massive federal presence in their state.”
Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico said, “The good news from my perspective is that the fate of the CMRR-Nuclear Facility still lies in the hands of the appropriations committees, and neither the House or Senate provided any money for it. Nevertheless, what the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have done is not good, creating a lot of political pressure to build CMRR.”
Coghlan said it’s not clear whether the CMRR-Nuclear Facility can proceed on this basis, and what the opposing reactions of both Appropriations Committees might be.
“Both the House and Senate have marked up and reported on Energy
and Water Development Appropriations, but there is still the opportunity for modifications in the bicameral conference that has to take place in order to pass the bill out of Congress,” Coghlan said.
“This also sets up a dynamic in which both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees in effect seek to do an end run around the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. That could possibly have long-term implications in how the legislative sausage gets ground, especially if the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittees choose to resist this infringement upon their traditional turf.”
Mello also had some questions.
“How will the Senate impose a “legislative cost cap?” What can this possibly mean? No one seriously thinks this project can be built for that little money,” Mello said. “ It appears that the Senate is now to be inducted into NNSA’s pattern of low-balling costs in order to create project momentum.
“How can it possibly make sense to restudy the project while it is in final design and early construction? This new confusion adds to the prior confusion of attempting to simultaneously design and build such a unique, complicated facility.
“PF-4 has twice the nuclear space of CMRR-NF. Replacing PF-4 would cost much more than CMRR-NF – and there is no indication that it needs replacing in the present planning horizon. Why is the Senate trying to second-guess the combined wisdom of several agencies on this matter, and why are these contradictory requirements not just creating chaos that could waste billions of dollars?”
One thing’s for sure. The CMRR funding fight will continue for a while.