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NNSA Directs Los Alamos to Begin ‘Mission Need’ Development for Modular Pu

Todd Jacobson
NS&D Monitor

The National Nuclear Security Administration has directed Los Alamos National Laboratory to begin developing preliminary planning documents for the third phase of its plutonium strategy, the construction of modules that will complement the lab’s Plutonium Facility (PF-4). In a Sept. 16 memo to Los Alamos Field Office Manager Kim Lebak and LANL Director Charlie McMillan, NNSA weapons program chief Don Cook said the lab should begin working to develop documents that will enable the Department of Energy to make a decision on the mission need of the modular facilities, known as Critical Decision-0. “To support a CD-0 decision in the third quarter of FY 2015, please work with the appropriate members of my staff to develop the requisite documents for CD-0 including two key documents, the Mission Need Statement (MNS) and Program Requirements Document (PRD),” Cook said in the memo.

The Nuclear Weapons Council formally committed July 25 to build two modular structures to help sustain Los Alamos’s plutonium capabilities in the wake of the deferral of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility. The modules would represent the third step in the lab’s alternate effort to sustain its plutonium capabilities following work to install new equipment in the lab’s existing Radiological Laboratory/Utility/Office Building (RLUOB) and PF-4 and to reconfigure space in PF-4. That work is expected to cost approximately $2 billion, according to preliminary cost estimates released internally last month and obtained by NS&D Monitor. The modules were not included in that cost estimate, and are likely to cost approximately $1 billion apiece, according to officials with knowledge of the planning.

CD-0 Documentation Critical to Meeting 2027 Operational Start for Modules

Nuclear Weapons Council Chairman Frank Kendall and National Nuclear Security Administration chief Frank Klotz said in a July 25 letter to key Congressional committees that the NNSA’s modular approach would “meet the requirements for maintaining the nuclear weapons stockpile over a 30-year period” and “meet the requirements for implementation of a responsive infrastructure, including meeting plutonium pit production requirements.” They promised that the NNSA would begin work on the modular structures in FY 2015 with pre-conceptual design activities in preparation for CD-0, and said the modules were expected to achieve full operating capability no later than 2027. In his Sept. 16 memo, Cook said the development of the CD-0 documentation that is beginning now is “critical to meeting this commitment and I look forward to seeing your progress in the coming months.”

Senate Appropriators Want Examination of All Alternatives Before Moving Past CD-0

Los Alamos has championed the modular approach as a cheaper alternative to the scuttled CMRR-NF, but Congress had been reluctant to agree to reprogram leftover CMRR-NF funds without a firm commitment from the NWC. Senate appropriators still remain unconvinced about the modular approach. They provided $3.8 million in their version of the FY 2015 Energy and Water Appropriations Act to begin studying the new modular approach, but they directed the NNSA to thoroughly examine all alternatives for modernizing Los Alamos’s plutonium capabilities before moving forward with the modular approach.

The Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee urged the agency to explore options brought up in a February Congressional Research Service report that suggested existing facilities could be used to help the NNSA meet its plutonium capabilities affordably and quickly. “We’re fine at a very low level to examine all the options and put them all on the table,” a Congressional aide told NS&D Monitor. “We understand they need a little money to work through all the issues.” But the aide said the “bar would be very high starting in FY 2016 without first going through a thorough assessment of alternatives and giving us specific information on what the needs are for a new module that existing facilities don’t give you, especially that requires the start of construction relatively soon.”

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