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OMAHA, Neb.—As the National Nuclear Security Administration refines its alternative plutonium strategy, Strategic Command chief Gen. Robert Kehler said this week that he is slowly gaining confidence in the plan. Since the Obama Administration decided to defer construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement- Nuclear Facility in February, deciding to pursue an alternative strategy that includes using existing facilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory as well as buildings at other weapons complex sites, Kehler has expressed concern with the lack of a concrete path forward. “I do think that we are beginning to close on a way ahead here that will have us have sufficient interim capability while we look to get the long term solution back on track,” Kehler said during a press conference at the fourth Deterrence Symposium in Omaha, Neb. “I don’t know what form that will finally take. It’s still under discussion. I think we’ve had … very good discussions about the way forward.”

NNSA Still Reviewing Alternative Options

Since the Administration’s decision to defer work on the CMRR-NF, details have slowly trickled out about its alternative approach and Los Alamos National Laboratory’s “60-day study,” which was prepared to provide plutonium options for the NNSA. According to two newly released lab summaries, the alternative would take eight years to execute and carries a price tag of nearly $800 million. The alternative strategy would give the NNSA the capability to manufacture 30 plutonium pits per year by the early 2020s in part by increasing plutonium capacity at the lab’s newly built Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building (RLUOB), and partly by shipping some of the plutonium work off site.

National Nuclear Security Administration officials said they are still reviewing the options and have not made decisions about whether or how to act on the lab’s proposal, but the agency acknowledged that multiple sites are being looked at to share the load. “The revised plutonium strategy will utilize existing facilities at multiple sites,” the agency said in a statement issued to reporters by spokesman Josh McConaha. “It is likely, but not certain, that we will use Superblock at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Device Assembly Facility in Nevada, and the new Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building (RLUOB) at Los Alamos National Laboratory. However, nothing has been settled and we are working to finalize the details at this point.”

Alternative Details Outlined

The new details were contained in a pair of briefings delivered in June by senior Los Alamos officials, one to staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one to the Los Alamos-Livermore “Mission Committee.” Powerpoints of the briefings were posted on the web via the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and Technical Information, which hosts a large archive of lab documents. The documents elaborate on information already published in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report accompanying its Fiscal Year 2013 Defense Authorization Act, which had to date provided the most detailed publicly available information on the National Nuclear Security Administration’s approach to rejiggering its plutonium strategy with CMRR-NF off the table. According to the briefing documents, the lab-proposed strategy includes:

    — Closing out design work on CMRR-NF this year;
    — Entering a broad “integrated nuclear planning” effort that would extend to 2107;
    — Startup of operations at RLUOB with a maximum material limit of 6 grams of plutonium in 2012-13;
    — Expansion of RLUOB material limit to 26 grams of plutonium in the 2013-15 time frame;
    — Design and construction of a tunnel connecting RLUOB with the lab’s Plutonium Facility (PF-4) to permit easy movement of nuclear material between the two facilities; and
    — Installation of additional equipment in RLUOB and PF-4 over the 2013-20 time frame to handle larger quantities of plutonium once destined for CMRR-NF.

The proposed strategy also includes continued work in the old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building, which dates to early in the Cold War, through the early 2020s, including the cleanout of explosives containment vessels (work that was already planned for the old CMR’s large hot cells even when CMRR-NF was still scheduled for completion). Shipments to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for some plutonium analysis there would begin in the 2014 time frame, and shipments to “other labs” would get underway in 2016. A notional budget profile prepared by the Los Alamos 60-day study team has the annual cost peaking in the $120 million to $130 million per year level in 2014-16. Notably, the plan appears to include no contemplated restart of work on CMRR-NF.

Kehler: ‘Increased Risk’ Becoming More Tolerable

In Congressional testimony and several speeches earlier this year, Kehler was vocal in expressing concern about the lack of a new plutonium strategy and the potential that the NNSA might not be able to meet the Department of Defense’s requirement for 50 to 80 pits a year. But that concern appears to be softening as more details of the plan become firmed up. “There is increased risk doing it this way, but the more we discuss this, the more we learn, the more comfortable that I think we can get with an interim solution,” Kehler said. “We will need an interim solution regardless of the outcome of the investment plan for the rest of the enterprise, but I think that we’re beginning to close on some viable solutions.”

Kehler said that it did not matter to the DoD whether the pit requirement was filled through newly produced pits or reused pits, an approach that is currently being studied by the NNSA. “What StratCom says to NNSA is you need to provide for us the weapons we need when we need them,” he said. “And then we rely on NNSA to come back with a plan to fit our need. It doesn’t matter to us up front how they go about that and especially during the study phases we’re in today. They’re looking at a number of different alternatives to meet the need. I believe that there are some viable alternatives there. We won’t know some of the answers to some of the technical solutions there for a couple number of years as we go forward and the studies continue to inform the process. … More work needs to be done, but I am of the view that some interim solutions exist.”

Questions Still Remain

However, the Los Alamos briefings suggest a string of unanswered questions. Most notable in the near term is the fate of the $120 million left in already appropriated CMRR-NF money once the current fiscal year’s closeout work is completed. The NNSA would like to reprogram that money for use in executing whatever their “Plan B” for plutonium work turns out to be. But that would require a congressional reprogramming, and there is believed to be significant resistance from some members of Congress who strongly object to the decision to defer CMRR-NF, and who believe the agency overstepped its Congressional mandate by closing out the work on the project this year and allowing the project team to disperse, essentially forcing Congress to accept the Administration’s proposal to kill the project.

Also unclear is what sort of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review might be required to implement a new strategy. A Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement done by NNSA last year, completed after the agency was sued by the Los Alamos Study Group, concluded that there was essentially no practical alternative to building CMRR-NF. As a result, the kind of options now being considered have never undergone a NEPA review.

It is already clear that the Senate Armed Services Committee holds a dim view of the alternative approach. The committee has already publicly objected to the idea of spreading the work across multiple NNSA sites. “A good rule of thumb with plutonium is that its operations are centralized in one place,” the committee’s report accompanying its version of the FY 2013 Defense Authorization Act concluded. The committee also reiterated the argument that 30 pits would not be sufficient capacity: “Once it learned of the proposed cancellation (of CMRR-NF), the committee asked the Department of Defense (DOD) if the requirement for 50–80 pits a year was still valid and was told it was.” —Todd Jacobson and staff reports

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