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With the end of the fiscal year looming, Congress has still not signed off on a $120 million reprogramming request from the National Nuclear Security Administration to begin work on an alternate plutonium strategy despite dire warnings from Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Charlie McMillan. In a July letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz obtained by NW&M Monitor, McMillan said the lack of action on the reprogramming request and funding cuts included in the House and Senate versions of the Fiscal Year 2014 Energy and Water Appropriations Act endanger the lab’s plutonium mission. With the multi-billion-dollar Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility deferred, the lab has suggested an alternate plutonium strategy based on a modular approach to maintaining the nation’s plutonium capabilities.

Parts of the reprogramming request would go to studying that approach while other money would allow the lab to begin purchasing materials and equipment for existing facilities that will play a larger role in the plutonium strategy, which is expected to enable the lab to produce up to 30 pits by 2021. “Los Alamos will continue to do everything possible to keep our people and programs intact should these funding reductions come to pass, but I am very worried that these FY 14 Pu program reductions will place the mission on an unrecoverable trajectory,” McMillan wrote in the July 1 letter. “With the 2019 closure of CMR [the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility] and significant underfunding of Pu infrastructure, we will simply not have the capability to produce much more than the current pit output.”

McMillan: Delay ‘Increases Risk’ to Pu Mission

Since McMillan sent his letter, House and Senate authorizers partially signed off on the reprogramming request, agreeing to allow the NNSA to reprogram $50 million and $60 million, respectively. But the House Appropriations Committee has not signed off, including language in this year’s appropriations bill rescinding previous approval of the reprogramming request. Their concern is believed to be based on the lack of estimates for near-term work at existing facilities, of which the reprogramming request only includes part of the total price tag. The NNSA is believed to have responded to questions from the subcommittee earlier this month, but the subcommittee sent a new round of questions to the agency this week. “Reducing this funding would mean that the initial steps to support pit manufacturing will not be accomplished,” McMillan wrote. “This increases the risk that there will be no path forward for our Pu activities once the 61-year old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility ceases programmatic operations in 2019.”

House appropriators also placed limitations on the operation of the lab’s Plutonium Facility due to seismic concerns. Senate appropriators have greenlighted the reprogramming request, but they did not provide money for plutonium metal processing in their version of the FY 2014 bill. “This funding reduction, together with the funding reductions in the House, pose a very serious challenge to Los Alamos meeting our mission requirements,” McMillan wrote.

Initial Look at Modular Approach Promising

In the wake of the CMRR-NF deferral, Los Alamos National Laboratory proposed a new strategy to maintain the nation’s plutonium capabilities based on a “modular” approach that would include smaller—and cheaper—facilities. An initial NNSA examination of the new strategy delivered promising results, leading the agency to embark on a more detailed study and business case analysis of the approach.

In an April letter to the House and Senate Armed Services committees, former acting NNSA chief Neile Miller and Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and Nuclear Weapons Council Chairman Frank Kendall said the $120 million reprogramming is needed to further assess the “modular” approach to replacing CMRR-NF’s capabilities and to prepare the RLUOB to play a larger role in small-sample analytical chemistry activities, which had been planned for CMRR-NF. It would also pay for the relocation of material characterization equipment from the lab’s existing Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building to PF-4, and the evaluation of design options for a material transfer tunnel between PF-4, RLUOB and the “modular” facilities. It is this work that is believed to be at the heart of concerns raised by House appropriators.

The officials said $4-6 million of the $120 million reprogramming request was needed for the Nuclear Weapons Council, the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation group, and Los Alamos to explore the “modular” approach this year. “This analysis will address the risks and benefits, pros and cons, and seek initial insights into the cost and schedule of modular acquisition,” the officials wrote. —Todd Jacobson


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