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New LANL plans call for lower-cost approach to nuke facility

Posted: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 10:00 pm | Updated: 6:52 pm, Thu May 9, 2013.
By Roger Snodgrass For The New Mexican |

At a U.S. Senate hearing this week in Washington, D.C., Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Charles McMillan referred to a Hollywood movie in describing the thinking behind a possible substitute for the $6 billion Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility project, which was placed on hold last year.

In the movie Moneyball, a statistical whiz kid convinces the manager of the Oakland A’s to select baseball players by using on-base percentages rather than home runs and batting averages. In studying the lab project, McMillan said he was looking for “a winning strategy with a lower budget.”

The new preliminary plans, which would undergo a business case analysis over the next year if Congress approves a $120 million budget reprogramming request, are sketched out in an April 8 letter from the Department of Defense and the National Nuclear Security Administration. The strategy not only aims to address the abandoned Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility project, but also aims to enhance the capacity of the lab’s existing Plutonium Facility, where up to 50 plutonium triggers, known as pits, could be made annually, McMillan testified.

The new “modular concept” proposes building a series of smaller, special-purpose modules underground and linking them by secure tunnels with the radiological laboratory and PF-4, where plutonium pits currently are made for the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

McMillan said he was ready to give up the larger “do-it-all-under-one-roof” design, but he walked a fine line between expressing the need for additional funds and making a case for savings and efficiencies.

Los Alamos has lost $130 million this year in sequester cuts and has absorbed budget reductions of about $450 million in the last two years. Employment has declined by about 1,500, from 11,800 to 10,300, McMillan said.

“I am a realist. I doubt that our budgets will increase at the rate necessary to address both our aging stockpile and infrastructure with the approaches and constraints of the past,” he said. At the same time, he stated that in order to maintain the nuclear weapons stockpile, the nation is faced with “more complex and expensive life-extension activities.”

One of those stockpile projects has been especially notorious. The B-61 program for upgrading and modernizing a class of nuclear gravity weapons originally was supposed to cost about $1 billion, but a new design includes more bells and whistles, including safety features and a tail for better guidance of the missile. Estimated costs have soared to $10 billion.

“The current B-61 [Life Extension Program] is more expensive than originally expected,” McMillan said, noting that projections for the next three weapons scheduled for modernization — the W78 intercontinental ballistic missile warhead and the W88 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, and the long-range standoff cruise missile — will likely follow suit.

McMillan concluded his remarks with a rhetorical question: “Is the path we’re on feasible? I believe it is; however, in practice it is going to be an expensive path.”

While many observers had expected President Barack Obama to announce a reduction in the nuclear stockpile this year, in the midst of spectacular cost overruns and new security scandals, the opposite is happening. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., observed this last week during a hearing with senior nuclear weapons officials. Reductions have been proposed for non-proliferation programs, she said, while plans for long-term spending hikes for new kinds of nuclear weapons have expanded. Feinstein called the situation “unsustainable and unrealistic.”

Calling attention to new developments, the Los Alamos Study Group announced Wednesday that the watchdog group is launching a new campaign to halt the new facility. “The Administration now foresees at least a decade of continually rising budgets,” the group’s latest bulletin states. The group plans to join with community members and international allies in an effort to halt what they call the “Obama nuclear surge.”

“We see ever-rising warhead budgets for an ever-smaller nuclear stockpile,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, which fought a court battle over the original CMRR project.

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