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NDAA attempts to force construction of LANL plutonium lab

January 5, 2013

President signs FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act
Act attempts to force construction of huge plutonium lab at Los Alamos
Authorizes spending but provides no money
Building CMRR-NF without major new funding would entail massive LANL layoffs
DoD, military, DOE, NNSA, White House oppose construction

Written by Steve Klinger

Today the President signed the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (FY2013 NDAA; text here <> , pdf), one section of which (section 3114, pp. 539-541) requires construction of a proposed multibillion dollar plutonium laboratory and storage facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF).

Previously, the President had threatened to veto the bill over this and several other provisions, saying:

The Administration strongly objects to section 3111 [later becoming section 3114 as noted], which would require construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility to begin in 2013. The Departments of Defense [DoD] and Energy [DOE] agree that, in light of today’s fiscal environment, CMRR can be deferred for at least five years, and funds reallocated to support higher priority nuclear weapons goals. An interim strategy will be implemented to provide adequate support to plutonium pit manufacturing and storage needs until a long-term solution can be implemented. Further, S. 3254 would require funding for the CMRR in FY 2013 to be taken from other National Nuclear Security Administration [NNSA] priorities, creating undue risks for other parts of the program, including delays to critical infrastructure modernization, underfunding operations of the nuclear complex, and curtailing science, engineering, and key nonproliferation initiatives. Finally, section 3111 [now 3114] specifies an operational date but caps total funding at the low end of the agency estimate, which may not be achievable.  (Statement of Administration Policy, Nov. 29, 2012 <> )

Today’s Presidential signing statement  <> did not refer to section 3114 or the CMRR-NF.

The CMRR-NF component of this long bill was highlighted in an article today <>  on the Global Security Newswire, which begins, “President Obama on Wednesday signed off on a 14-year deadline for completing a controversial nuclear arms laboratory and storage site, despite a previous push by his administration to postpone the project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.”

The FY2013 NDAA:

  • Defines the CMRR-NF as the project now partially designed and indefinitely deferred;
  • Requires DOE and NNSA to seek assistance from the Naval Facilities Engineering Command with respect to CMRR-NF management, oversight, and design;
  • Authorizes $70 million for CMRR-NF in FY2013, plus any prior-year funds remaining (which are about $120 million);
  • Prevents spending on any plutonium strategy not involving operation of CMRR-NF by 2026; and
  • Requires study by the Deputy NNSA Administrator for Naval Reactors of any alternative (non-CMRR-NF) plutonium strategy, to be submitted to the armed services committees (not NNSA) within 18 months from today.

In addition, the Act:

  • Requires that the building cost no more than $3.7 billion and be in operation no later than 2026; and
  • Requires that NNSA not use any funds authorized for the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) project, Naval Reactors, or Directed Stockpile budget on the CMRR-NF project.

These last two provisions have little legislative content, as: a) there is no way to legislate the future cost or completion date of the project; and b) the use of funds outside specific line items is normally forbidden by existing law anyway (by the Anti-Deficiency Act <> ).

The stated $3.7 billion was the lowest roughly-estimated cost for the project as of late 2010.  The high-end estimate at the time was $5.9 billion.  No more recent estimate is publicly available, although NNSA and DoD have both prepared estimates (which reportedly differ).  All NNSA project costs have risen since 2010.  In 2010, no independent cost estimate for the project had been conducted.  Even today no detailed project baseline (design requirements, cost, and schedule) has been prepared, meaning that all cost estimates at this point are somewhat speculative.  Despite expenditure of ($635 million <>  minus $120 million equals) $515 million on the project to date, many basic design questions remain unresolved <> .

Study Group Director Greg Mello:

“This is indeed a strange situation, where the two armed services committees stand entirely alone in their support for the CMRR-NF.  The strategy of deferral for at least 5 years has been endorsed by the Pentagon, the U.S. Strategic Command, the DOE and NNSA, and all White House offices.  This consensus was announced in February <,Consolidation,Savings.pdf>  (pdf) and codified in a formal Nuclear Weapons Council decision last spring <>  (pdf).  Deferral has been endorsed by the whole Republican-led House of Representatives in its proposed Energy and Water Appropriations bill for FY 2013 — during the passage of which no member, including no member of the House Armed Services Committee, even offered an amendment to fund this project.  The Senate Appropriations Committee’s Energy and Water Appropriations markup for FY2013 also deferred and de-funded this project.  That thoroughly-studied provision almost certainly would have passed the whole Senate unscathed, as happened in the House.

“Today’s bill, by its nature, cannot provide project funding.

“Starting in February, the Administration began implementing its deferral strategy and has subsequently developed a draft alternative which meets all perceived national security needs, as its support by all the national security agencies testifies.  Congress also has been informed of this support in formal testimony and numerous interagency briefings.  Contractor personnel on the project have already dwindled to about 10, down from more than 500.  Few of the people who left are available now, and there is no contract structure under which they could work.  Hiring new engineers with security clearances and nuclear experience is a slow process.

“This NDAA provision would leave the nation without a viable plutonium sustainment strategy for at least 7 years (from 2019 to 2026), given that the current final operations in the old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) facility are slated to end in 2019.  This seven-year hiatus assumes that the proposed CMRR-NF can be built by 2026.  It is a risky strategy all around, vesting plutonium sustainment in what right now is quite a hypothetical building that may be ready for use in 2026.

“In many ways this Act can be viewed in light of Congress’ general dysfunction this year as well as the peculiar loyalties and practices of the armed services committees.  These committees lack balancing fiscal discipline, in two ways: first, they do not appropriate funds and are free to posture within their areas of responsibility without any binding fiscal cap; and second, they have a narrow area of responsibility and correspondingly narrow set of “stakeholders.”

“This year, the House produced an NDAA markup which we and many others found highly ideological as it pertained to NNSA.  The Senate Armed Services Committee produced a markup which was riddled with factual errors pertaining to CMRR.  Today’s new law is the offspring of those two parents.

“The election year and ‘fiscal cliff’ phenomena have helped curtail the ability of Congress to learn the issues.  As a result this bill, in these sections, relies heavily on the views of lobbyists such as Bob DeGrasse, the recently-former Majority Counsel for the House Armed Services Committee, who now lobbies for Bechtel National.  Bechtel stands to gain billions of dollars from this single provision.

“This law does not force the Administration to build CMRR-NF.  There is no money provided.  In addition, no Administration is required to follow an impossible mandate.

“In the absence of new funds, building CMRR-NF, which would require annual appropriations in the vicinity of $500 million at peak, would cause great layoffs at LANL, up to roughly one-fourth of the current staff.  The Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States <>  warned of such a dire scenario in 2009.”

Further information can be found in:

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