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"Forget the Rest" blog

For Immediate Release 5/25/12

Senate Committee would Mandate Construction of Huge Additional Los Alamos Plutonium Facility over Pentagon, NNSA Objections

Requires NNSA to Start Construction ASAP – While Studying What to Build

“Legislative Cost Cap” to Somehow Hold Cost to Lowest 2010 Estimate

Organizations on the Left and Right Condemn Senate Committee’s Resuscitation of Unneeded Project Rejected by Military

Contact: Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group, 505-265-1200

Paul Gessing, Rio Grande Foundation, 505-264-6090

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – Yesterday the Senate Armed Services Committee, acting in closed session, approved its markup of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.

The Committee’s proposed bill and accompanying report are not available but their content is briefly summarized in a press release (pdf).

Concerning the proposed additional plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), called the “Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility” (CMRR-NF), the bill would:

  • Mandate continuity in the CMRR-NF project, authorizing $150.0 million (M) in FY13 for design and construction.  There are substantial unspent balances from prior years’ appropriations in CMRR-NF, estimated at $160 M by the House Armed Services Committee.  Combining the proposed new money with unspent balances would bring the project back to more or less the funding level of $300 M for FY2013 that was proposed in November 2010.

  • Require the facility to be operational by the end of 2024, now a difficult target to achieve given project delays since 2010 and the remaining (extensive) design uncertainties.  This deadline implies a construction start in FY13.

  • Place a "legislative cost cap" on CMRR-NF of $3.7 billion (B), which was the lowest possible cost as estimated two years ago (the range given in November 2010 [pdf] and later repeated in the FY2012 Congressional Budget Request [pdf] was $3.7 to $5.9 B).

  • Requires the Nuclear Weapons Council (composed of senior representatives from the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs, and the Department of Energy's DOE's] semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration [NNSA]) to determine the feasibility of further consolidations to the NNSA complex and, if feasible, submit a report a proposed consolidation process prior to construction of the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) “building” at the Y-12 site in Tennessee and the CMRR-NF “building."

The press release language does not indicate that initial construction on these projects, which involves extensive site preparation, construction of ancillary structures and concrete batch plants, road and utility modifications and other work, would be held back for production of this report.  Quite the contrary.

Sources in Washington tell one of us (Greg Mello), that 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.   

  • Retains NNSA management of the CMRR-NF project, unlike the corresponding House bill (H.R. 4310, sections 2804-2805), which transferred control of the project to the Department of Defense (DoD).

The House and Senate appropriations committees have zeroed out CMRR-NF for FY13, and the NNSA, Pentagon, STRATCOM, and DOE have all testified to Congress in hearings this year that CMRR-NF can be deferred for at least five years, since there are alternative means of satisfying the CMRR-NF mission for at least that long. 

This deferral implies that the earliest possible operational date for CMRR-NF would be 2028, which was confirmed in questioning from Senator Sessions by NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino.  All the defense agencies, and both appropriations committees, are on record as agreeing with this policy.  

John Harvey, Principal Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, put it this way in a press interview: [1]

When you're forced into a situation you have to get smart and if we are smart we may be able to do some things that would enable us to get higher capability from existing facilities.

Paul Gessing, Executive Director of the conservative Rio Grande Foundation, had this to say about yesterday’s decision:

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 the 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.

Fiscal conservatives including the Rio Grande Foundation and its supporters value a strong defense, but reject blatant porkbarrel spending in the guise of actual military needs.

Greg Mello, Executive Director of the Los Alamos Study Group, remarked:

"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.

"Last year, Congress was paralyzed for months over the question of spending, resulting in the Budget Control Act of 2011, which mandates an 11.5% cut in defense spending as well as comparable cuts in domestic discretionary spending starting on January 2, 2013 in the absence of an equal-or-better deficit reduction package. How does this proposal jive with that serious commitment? It appears that the Senate Armed Services Committee is breaking its commitment to reduce the deficit. Will NNSA be joining with other agencies in cutting costs or is the agency a "special snowflake," as someone put it last year?

"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. 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?"

The Study Group has written extensively on this project. Our best resources on the subject are here (pdf).  Technical and managerial reasons why the project is unwise are summarized here (pdf).

Greg Mello and Paul Gessing wrote an op-ed together against this project here.

Conservative readers may also be interested in Kelly Vlahos’ article, Nuclear Money Pit, America's atomic arsenal is stuck in the Cold War era, The American Conservative (pdf) Dec 2011.


[1] Quoted in the February 24, 2012 issue of Nuclear Weapons Materials Monitor.

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