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Project on Government Oversight Recommends Killing Funding for Multi-Billion-Dollar Project

With less than a month remaining before the Obama Administration’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget release, Los Alamos National Laboratory officials are bracing for what is expected to be a massive cut to its biggest project: the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility. The multi-billion-dollar project that will replace the lab’s aging Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility has come under fire in recent months, both from Congress and from government watchdog groups like the Project on Government Oversight and the Los Alamos Study Group. Although lab and NNSA officials haven’t said anything publicly about the project, lab officials are privately expecting the worst when it comes to funding for the project, which is estimated to cost between $3.7 and $5.8 billion. “We’re not expecting funding for CMRR,” one official told NW&M Monitor. “Right now, we’re planning to go without.”

Though the Administration’s intentions are unclear, a decision to cut funding for the planned facility could allow the National Nuclear Security Administration to stagger its two biggest projects, the CMRR-NF and the Uranium Processing Facility planned for the Y-12 National Security Complex, or do away with the CMRR-NF project altogether. Either way, as a key piece of the Obama Administration’s plan to modernize the nation’s weapons complex and nuclear stockpile, any pullback on funding for CMRRNF would certainly draw protests from Congressional Republicans. The Administration pledged $88 billion from FY2012 to FY2021 to maintain and modernize the complex, with construction of the CMRR-NF and UPF the centerpieces of the plan. In FY2012 budget projections, the Administration said it expected to spend $300 million on CMRR-NF in FY2012 and FY2013, but Congress had already begun to balk at the price tag, providing just $200 million in FY2012 with explicit instructions prohibiting the start of preliminary construction activities. Previously, the Senate Appropriations Committee had directed the NNSA to consider staggering construction of CMRR-NF and UPF. “The eventual demise of CMRR-NF has been inevitable, given its lack of justification and astronomical cost,” said Greg Mello, the director of the Los Alamos Study Group. Mello’s organization has parallel lawsuits that contend that NNSA hasn’t fully analyzed alternatives to building CMRR-NF. “The initial costs were low-balled and unrealistic,” Mello said.

With Limited Funds, a Choice

Initially estimated to cost $375 million, the current projected price tag for the project is between $3.7 and $5.8 billion. A firm cost estimate for the project isn’t expected until the end of this year at the earliest, and Congress recently declined to provide funding for the project to begin preliminary construction activities in Fiscal Year 2012; the facility is expected to be fully operational in 2023. The facility would provide space for analytical chemistry and vault space for plutonium storage, which would free up space in the lab’s Plutonium Facility to increase the production of plutonium pits. One industry official suggested that CMRR-NF’s relatively limited mission could be its downfall. “When you’re talking about UPF and CMRR-NF, there’s no comparison,” the official told NW&M Monitor. “UPF, almost all of it is operations space and you’ve got to replace the 9212 complex. With CMRR-NF, there’s only two programmatic operational functions—an analytical lab and vault space for plutonium. Everything else is support space, so it’s not hard to see why there are questions about it.”

It’s unclear how the Administration will choose to pursue the project, but some industry officials have suggested that design of the facility could be completed during FY2012 with funds that have already been appropriated—and potentially used when the budget environment is more friendly. That strategy would also appear to fall in line with a “staggering” approach involving major NNSA construction work, allowing construction to begin on UPF while delaying work on CMRR-NF. Mello suggested, however, that work on the project be stopped immediately. “Assuming the current rumors are true, the main thing now is to stop additional expenditures immediately, mid-year, rather than winding down the project gradually and wasting even more money,” he said. “NNSA should focus on making the existing LANL plutonium facility safe, without adding capabilities, at the same time continuing its process of abandoning CMR, which now has no remaining long-term missions.”

NNSA Bracing for Budget Woes

While NNSA officials haven’t said anything publicly about the project, there has been a clear indication that the FY2013 budget request would be lower than previous projections. In comments to NW&M Monitor last month, NNSA Principal Deputy Administrator Neile Miller suggested that the agency would have to make do with less month than expected; $7.95 billion had been projected for the weapons program a year ago. “Lots of consideration has been given now to a lot of things to try and formulate a budget at lower amounts than we planned a year ago,” Miller told NW&M Monitor after her speech. “That’s the Budget Control Act reality. Everyone from DoD to you name the ‘D’ has needed to and has been reexamining assumptions and priorities and program of work.”

POGO Calls for CMRR-NF to End

Such a decision would be just what the Project on Government Oversight is recommending. Calling the project a “behemoth of overspending,” the watchdog group this week urged the Administration and Congress to kill the project over concerns about its price tag and what it said were questions about its need in the current fiscal and national security environments. “This facility is a poster child for government waste,” POGO Senior Investigator Peter Stockton said in a statement. “Why are we designing a multi-billion dollar facility that has no clear mission?” While breaking no new ground, POGO’s report ticks off a variety of issues facing the project that have made it a potential target of budget cuts, including its ballooning cost and NNSA’s spotty project management record, reductions to the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, as well as seismic concerns related to its design. “Moving forward with CMRR-NF completely defies logic and our current budgetary realities,” POGO Investigator Mia Steinle said. “It also runs contrary to U.S. nuclear strategy.”

POGO suggested that given the current needs of the nation’s nuclear deterrent, it was not necessary to increase pit production, which is one of the main arguments supporting the facility, and it suggested that the facility’s planned mission could be performed at other facilities around the weapons complex at a much lower cost. “The fact that CMRR-NF is counter to current nuclear strategy should have been enough to halt design and construction of the facility some time ago,” POGO said in the report. “Now that the U.S. budget is in such dire straits, it only makes sense to cut such an expensive project before more money is wasted.”

POGO said alternatives involving the existing CMR facility, the first phase of the CMRR project—known as the Radiological Laboratory/Utility/Office Building or RLUOB—and the lab’s Plutonium Facility could accommodate the missions currently planned for the Nuclear Facility, suggesting that room in the Plutonium Facility could be freed up by moving the facility’s Plutonium-238 refining mission to the Savannah River Site or Idaho National Laboratory. “Given the likelihood of design and construction problems at CMRR-NF because of DOE’s past problems, it is highly risky for construction to go forward,” POGO said. “It is apparent that less costly alternative plans that do not involve a new building could satisfy DOE’s and NNSA’s needs, if only the agencies would give those plans serious consideration.”

A Precedent for Abandoning Projects?

POGO also noted that there is precedent for canceling projects, noting that Congress cancelled the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, Gas Centrifuge Enrichment Plant, the New Production Reactor, and the Superconducting Super Collider, each after construction had begun. “Given the billion-dollar waste of these and other past projects, CMRR-NF doesn’t seem like a promising investment,” POGO said. “But, construction has not yet begun on CMRR-NF, so there is still time to avoid similar sunk costs. RLUOB’s existence is not an argument for the construction of CMRR-NF. Hopefully, Congress will speak out against CMRR-NF sooner than later and save billions of dollars.”

—Todd Jacobson

Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor • ExchangeMonitor Publications, Inc. • January 20, 2012

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