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The multi-billion-dollar Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility that had been planned for Los Alamos National Laboratory may have been too much for the Administration to consider in tight budget environments, but Los Alamos National Laboratory is proposing a smaller scale approach to providing long-term plutonium capabilities for the nation. Speaking at the Nuclear Deterrence Summit this week, Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Charlie McMillan said the lab is pursuing designing and building “small, individual facilities” to meet specific tasks associated with maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. “I am concerned that in the current fiscal environment, it may no longer be practical to build large, high-hazard nuclear facilities,” McMillan said. “A new path forward is needed.”

The Los Alamos proposal, which has been briefed to key staff on Capitol Hill in recent weeks, is believed to provide a cheaper way of meeting the nation’s long-term plutonium needs. The Administration deferred work on the CMRR-NF last year largely because the costly facility had grown unaffordable—the last estimate for the facility put the price tag in the range of $3.7 and $5.8 billion—and other options were available to help the nation meet its plutonium needs. In the short term, Los Alamos has examined establishing an interim plutonium capability by using existing facilities both at Los Alamos and across the weapons complex, including at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. That effort, however, has been stalled because Congress has thus far refused to approve a reprogramming request that would allow the lab to do more work on the interim capability.

McMillan: Time to Build Massive Facilities Too Long

Using smaller facilities for the long-term would potentially allow the lab to meet the nation’s plutonium needs without having to build a massive facility like CMRR-NF, which has been on the drawing board for several decades. “It may seem easier to envision a large signature facility that does all things nuclear. That’s kind of what we had for the analytical capability in CMRR,” McMillan said. “But the reality is that the time frames needed to build them have simply become too long. To support this country’s current path for the stockpile, the labs and the plants need access to modern uranium and plutonium facilities sooner rather than later.” The new approach, NW&M Monitor has learned, would take advantage of existing facilities like the first phase of the CMRR project, the Radiological Laboratory/ Utility/Office Building, while building smaller facilities on the planned footprint of CMRR-NF. Such an approach would be modeled after the lab’s Plutonium Facility, which is essentially a warren of small interconnected laboratories. “Smaller, specialized facilities together with repurposing existing space would be one approach because the cost to the taxpayer would be smaller and the design approvals and construction would be simpler,” McMillan said.

McMillan said that recent policy changes by the NNSA that allow more plutonium to be housed in the RLOUB—26 grams, up from six grams—have made different approaches possible, both in the short term and the long term. “That makes a difference in what we can do,” he said. “Those kinds of policy decisions lead to different options. We are proposing a set of similar changes that could then lead to different ways to use space within existing facilities as well as those smaller facilities to provide the capability. But those are options we’re giving the government.”

Is CMRR-NF Dead?

When asked if his proposal suggested that CMRR-NF as had been proposed would never be built, McMillan said that wasn’t his decision to make. “That’s going to be a governmental decision,” he said. “What we have been working to do is provide the government with options and provide the capabilities we had planned for CMRR in smaller facilities as well as using existing facilities, primarily made possible by changes in policy.” —Todd Jacobson

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