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Administration plutonium strategy: no new construction at Los Alamos for now

By John Fleck / Journal Staff Writer
PUBLISHED: Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 5:53 pm

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2015 budget request to Congress will not include a new construction project at Los Alamos for plutonium work, either now or for 2016, National Nuclear Security Administration officials told reporters Tuesday.

Instead, the agency will continue to work within two Los Alamos buildings that now do plutonium work, with any possibility of new money for larger-scale construction put off until at least 2017, said Don Cook, NNSA’s Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs.

After the Obama administration’s 2012 decision to halt work on a multi-billion dollar plutonium laboratory at Los Alamos because of cost overruns and schedule delays, the lab and federal officials have been working on an alternative strategy that includes smaller “modular” buildings, each tailored to a specific task. But there will be no request for money in the administration’s FY2015 request to launch that project, Cook said.

Instead, the agency has developed a phased approach. The first phase will use an existing building with some new equipment, the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building, with new rules allowing more plutonium to be used there, Cook said during a Tuesday telephone news conference. The second phase involves removing old equipment in a second existing building, the lab’s 1970s-era Plutonium Facility (also known as “PF-4″). The equipment, used for nitric and hydrochloric acid processing of plutonium, is no longer needed, Cook said. Money for that work will be requested in 2016, according to Cook. Only after that is done will the lab and NNSA begin pursuing their modular strategy.

“The modules are part of the third phase, and until we know how many of them and the detailed design we won’t be requesting money for them,” Cook said.

The NNSA remains committed to meeting its pledge to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board to have all workers out of the Cold War-era Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building by 2019, acting NNSA chief Bruce Held told reporters.

There’s much more background on all this in my column in this morning’s paper, and in a new Congressional Research Service report that I’ve posted here. Journal Washington correspondent Michael Coleman and I will have more in tomorrow’s newspaper.

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