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House appropriators have finally signed off on the National Nuclear Security Administration’s plutonium reprogramming request, but the agency isn’t getting all of the money it wanted. In a letter sent to Department of Energy Deputy Chief Financial Officer Alison Doone late last week, Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) and Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio)—the chairman and ranking member on the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee—approved $43.3 million of the NNSA’s request to reprogram $120 million from the deferred Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) to other work at Los Alamos National Laboratory on establishing an alternate plutonium capability.

But while the Sept. 18 letter, which was sent to DOE late on Sept. 19, ends a year-long wait for Congressional approval of the reprogramming request, it’s unclear how much Los Alamos can do with the funds. Los Alamos National Laboratory referred questions to NNSA, and the NNSA did not respond to a request for comment. Frelinghuysen and Kaptur said the money can be used for planning and pre-conceptual design work on an alternate plutonium strategy as well as to relocate equipment from the existing Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility and to achieve operational readiness of LANL’s recently completed Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building (RLUOB), which was built adjacent to where the CMRR- NF was to be constructed. The appropriators said the money can’t be used to “perform construction activities, including reconfiguring PF-4 to meet enduring plutonium infrastructure requirements,” but they leave the door open for the agency to come back and request money for that work separately as a new line-item construction project.

The House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee was the last Congressional panel that had to sign off on the reprogramming request, but it was not the only one that didn’t approve the entire amount. The Senate Armed Services Committee authorized NNSA to reprogram $60 million, while the House Armed Services Committee authorized $50 million. The Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee approved the entire amount. The reprogramming request was originally sent to Congress Sept. 13, 2012.

So What Can NNSA Really Do?

In August, the NNSA and the Nuclear Weapons Council sent a spend plan to the House Armed Services Committee for the $50 million the panel had authorized. The approval by the House appropriators appears to encompass $23.3 million from that spending plan, including: $6.9 million for planning and integration work for the modular strategy, which includes $3 million to begin designing a tunnel from Los Alamos’ Plutonium Facility to RLUOB. Also included was $5 million to relocate materials characterization activities from the existing Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility to the Plutonium Facility, and $11.4 million to prepare RLUOB to undertake a larger part of the mission previously targeted for the CMRR-NF. What it does not appear to allow is $26.7 million to begin decommissioning and demolition work in underused areas of Los Alamos’ Plutonium Facility.

The NNSA’s plutonium strategy has come under scrutiny from activist organizations, including the Los Alamos Study Group, which sued the agency twice to stop work on the now deferred CMRR-NF. “There is no coherent plan as yet,” Study Group Director Greg Mello said. “Alternatives are being vetted, but many key assumptions are arbitrary and unexamined. There is no environmental impact statement examining the alternatives, which stretch across more than a half dozen states. Such analysis, which we believe is legally required and has never been done, would help NNSA and Congress clarify and vet options.” He added: “The most important thing NNSA can do with these reprogrammed funds is to clarify and publicly vet its plans in the legally-required manner. Otherwise, more plutonium project failures and delays may lie ahead.” —Todd Jacobson

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