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"Forget the Rest" blog

NWMM special edition


Shrinking federal budgets forced the National Nuclear Security Administration to pick between its two multi-billion-dollar construction projects, and the winner is the Uranium Processing Facility planned for the Y-12 National Security Complex. As it rolled out its Fiscal Year 2013 budget request yesterday, the Obama Administration said it planned to “defer” construction on the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility slated for Los Alamos National Laboratory for “at least five years” while accelerating work on UPF. “Within these budget realities it was very clear we couldn’t do both things in parallel at the same time,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu told reporters yesterday. “We address the ones that we thought were the most critical.”

As recently as last year, both projects were considered cornerstones of the Obama Administration’s plan to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal and weapons complex, but their rising price tags—combined with fiscal belt-tightening across the federal government—forced the agency to rethink its plans. In the last few years, the estimated cost to build both facilities has nearly doubled. The price tag for CMRR-NF is estimated between $3.7 and $5.8 billion, while UPF is estimated to cost between $4.2 and $6.5 billion and an Army Corps of Engineers report completed last year indicated that the cost is likely to end up between $6.5 and $7.5 billion.

Lawmakers Question Choices
The decision is sure to be criticized by Congressional Republicans, who have sought to hold the President to the modernization promises he made during Senate debate on the New START Treaty in 2010. At the time, CMRR-NF and UPF were considered vital to the modernization effort, and in a statement last week, Rep. Michael Turner (ROhio), the chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, accused the President of “changing the terms of the Senate’s ratification of the treaty.” A Turner spokesman declined to comment on the FY2013 budget release, but said the lawmaker still plans to introduce legislation this week to address the modernization commitments. On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) also questioned the about-face on the project. “For years we have been told the CMRR nuclear facility was necessary. Now we’re being told there may be alternatives. I look forward to hearing more from the administration about this change in plans,” Bingaman said in a statement.

Before zeroing out CMRR-NF funding in FY2013, previous budget documents indicated that NNSA had expected to request $300 million for the project, but signs of Congressional discontent—at least among appropriators— with the project begun to appear last year. In FY2012, Congressional appropriators provided only $200 million of the Administration’s $300 million request and explicitly prohibited the lab from beginning to prepare the site for construction in FY2012. The Administration said it would avoid spending $1.8 billion from 2013 to 2017 on the project, but experts believe if the NNSA ultimately decides to build the facility, the delays will add more costs to the final price tag. As for UPF, the Administration is requesting $340 million for the project, nearly $180 million more than was appropriated for the project in FY2012 and $150 million more than the agency had projected spending a year ago. That move was applauded by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee. “Modernizing the nation’s nuclear weapons complex is of critical importance to our nation’s defense. I look forward to seeing a detailed plan for doing it on time and within budget,” Alexander said.

Looking at the ‘Big Picture’
It’s not clear if the NNSA will ever build the CMRR-NF as previously envisioned. While NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino stressed that the decision was a deferral and not a cancellation of the project, he said the decision would give the agency time to evaluate how to approach replacing the lab’s plutonium facility, which was built in 1978, is currently undergoing significant seismic upgrades, and will reach the end of its expected lifespan in several decades. “It’s very clear to us, if we’re going to get in the business of building billion dollar nuclear facilities that we need to take into consideration the big picture,” D’Agostino said. “Because of where we are financially this affords us the opportunity to do that and it also allows us to take a look at the existing plutonium capability we have that doesn’t rely solely on the old CMR [Chemistry and Metallurgy Research] facility.”

NNSA Defense Programs chief Don Cook said the increased funding for UPF would allow an acceleration of construction work on the project, particularly the massive amounts of concrete and reinforcing bar that will be needed. The increase “gets us the most efficient way to put the base build facility in place,” Cook said. The installation of tooling and equipment that will allow the agency to move out of the 9212 facility will remain on its previous schedule and will begin in 2019, Cook said. According to the budget request, the facility would be operational in the fourth quarter of 2022. The NNSA won’t commit to a baseline for the project until it reaches 90 percent design maturity at the end of FY2012 or the beginning of
FY2013. “We’ll have this logic built into the baseline when we set the price,” Cook said.

Plutonium Options Drive Decision
Deferring the CMRR-NF project was easier than postponing UPF, D’Agostino said, because there were options to assume much of the facility’s mission. He said the agency will make use of the recently built Radiological Laboratory and Utility Office Building—that was to stand next to the CMRR-NF at Los Alamos’ Technical Area 55—for materials characterization and analytical chemistry and also lean on Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Superblock facility. CMRR-NF was also designed to include a storage vault for plutonium from Los Alamos’ plutonium facility, but the Administration said efforts to process, package and dispose of excess nuclear materials and reduce material at risk in the plutonium facility would be accelerated through a $35 million funding boost in FY2013. The Device Assembly Facility at the Nevada National Security Site also could be used to stage plutonium for future uses, the Administration said. “The country had options on the plutonium side,” D’Agostino said. “It didn’t have any options on the uranium side.”

Y-12’s 9212 facility, where the nation’s enriched uranium processing efforts are housed, is widely regarded as being in dismal shape, and there is nowhere else in the weapons complex that the NNSA could move those processes, officials said. Cook described the facility as “used up” during a conference call with reporters yesterday. “We don’t have any option not to get out of 9212,” Cook said. “We need to.” D’Agostino said a review of the nation’s uranium and plutonium capabilities confirmed those opinions. “We took a look at our capabilities, both in the plutonium side and the uranium side, and it’s very clear when you do that that there is a clear and urgent need to move the functions we have in the 9212 building in uranium work, move it out of there,” D’Agostino said. “Because that’s a high risk activity, the Defense [Nuclear Facilities Safety] Board has told us that, we understand that, so we had to get moving on that.”

CMRR-NF Work to Continue Through FY2012
Cook said design work will still continue on CMRR-NF for the remainder of FY2012 so that the work is not lost. He said part of the $200 million appropriated for the project in FY2012 also was destined for the RLUOB, which is expected to be completely outfitted by April of this year. “It’s the most prudent thing to do,” Cook said. “At this point we have a deferral for at least five years. What we want to make sure we do is wrap up the design, get this to a point where it could be taken forward into the future, modified as need be, rather than just stop the design work.”

—Todd Jacobson

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