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Costly LANL project falling farther from realization

By Roger Snodgrass | For The New Mexican 9/30/2012

With progress to date slow, expensive and indefinite, Los Alamos National Laboratory’s controversial plans for building a new nuclear facility continue to fade.

Discussing how the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility is being ramped down, a project leader acknowledged this week that the design work for the proposed plutonium facility cost about $425 million without ever having reached the “level of confidence” needed even to prepare a reliable budget or begin building.

“We did not go through another range estimate for the project,” said Steve Fong, a member of the federal team supervising CMRR-NF. He concluded, however, that the most recent $3.7 to $5.8 billion dollar figure was still a valid cost estimate at the stopping point.

“We haven’t spent all the money that was supplied to us this year,” Fong said, referring to $200 million budgeted for close-out operations. About $120 million that was not spent will be applied to other programs by the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C.; there will no longer be a CMRR-NF account, and any restart action for the project would have to originate in Washington.

The five-year deferral of the massive plutonium processing and handling building was zeroed out of the Obama administration’s budget proposal in February for the new fiscal year that begins Monday, Oct. 1. However, it has been the subject of a series of skirmishes since the decision. While congressional appropriators on the budget committees have held firm in making the cuts recommended by the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Pentagon, congressional authorizers on both the House and the Senate armed services committees have repeatedly tried to keep the program alive.

A document prepared for Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., from the Department of Energy earlier this month, contained specific reprogramming language to recoup the $120 million not spent on CMRR-NF, while adding $120 million for facilities operations at LANL. The funds would be used for set-up activities and additional plutonium capabilities in the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building. That smaller building in the complex will become operational in November and has been enlisted to fill part of the gap created by the deferral of the larger nuclear facility.

In a transmittal letter to Levin, a DOE official reopened the question of how long the CMRR-NF deferral might last. “The Administration will continue to evaluate options for the modernization of our infrastructure, including further analysis of the length of time we should defer construction of the CMRR-NF,” wrote Joanne Choi, DOE acting deputy chief financial officer.

Levin responded to the request, protesting that a five-year delay of the nuclear facility would add 25 percent to the cost of the CMRR-NF and, with the addition of another $1 billion in “stop-gap” expenses, would raise project costs to “between $5.6 and $7.2 billion.” The “sheer size of the cost escalation,” he wrote, “could lead to an inability to construct” the CMRR-NF.”

Levin concluded that the committee would not act on the request at the moment, but that it would look forward to renewed discussions with the executive branch to meet both short- and long-term needs.

Local community groups expressed their concerns about the project’s conditional status at a meeting with laboratory managers this week.

Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, challenged what he interpreted as the official presumption that there would not be further meetings on the CMRR-NF project under the current arrangement. He asked Fong what in his opinion would trigger a restart of the public meetings.

“A budget request to Congress is going to be well in advance of any startup, so that’s the first advance,” Fong said. “To reconstitute a design team and get going, it takes years to get to where we were — it’s going to take quite some time to get up to speed again.”

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, asked a number of questions about projected costs and future plans, which Fong was unable to answer because they were beyond the scope of the soon-to-be-defunct current CMRR-NF project. Mello asked if there might be a summary document that would be open to the public that could capture some of the lessons learned.

Such a review might be in the realm that “security doesn’t like to have out there,” Fong said, adding that most of the information in public view comes from sources such as the Inspector General or the Government Accountability Office.

A series of evaluations by the Government Accountability Office over many years have been critical of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s management abilities. “ NNSA does not have a sound basis for making decisions on how to most effectively manage its portfolio of projects and other programs and lacks information that could help justify future budget requests or target cost savings opportunities,” GAO concluded in one report earlier this year.

On Sept. 22, the Senate passed a Continuing Resolution for the fiscal 2013 budget without specifically ruling out funding for CMRR-NF, but without specifically appropriating any funds for it either. The ambiguity gave encouragement to both sides of the discussion.

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