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The National Nuclear Security Administration may have options to meet the nation’s plutonium pit needs short of large-scale new construction, according to a new report from Congressional Research Service analyst Jonathan Medalia. Such options “have the potential to produce 80 (pits per year) and permit other plutonium activities at relatively modest cost, in a relatively short time, with no new buildings, and with minimal environmental impact,” Medalia concluded in the 90-page analysis, which was made public this week.

The analysis comes two years after the Obama Administration indefinitely deferred “Plan A” for plutonium work, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos National Laboratory. CMRR-NF would have replace the lab’s early-Cold War era Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building. In the two years since CMRR-NF was put on life support, the lab and NNSA have been developing the outlines of their “Plan B,” a modular approach that involves building smaller, separate facilities, with an independently estimated price tag of less than $2 billion, compared to the $4 billion to $6 billion estimated cost of CMRR-NF.

Report Calls for More Studies

Medalia’s report highlights some of the advantages of the modular approach. But there are other options, he wrote, including moving some plutonium work from Los Alamos to other facilities and making do with existing facilities. To choose among them, Medalia suggested, Congress should direct NNSA to conduct a number of studies that would better inform decisions.

One option to free up space at Los Alamos for pit work would be to move plutonium-238 work, which is used for spacecraft batteries and other compact energy source needs, to Idaho National Laboratory or the Savannah River Site. Similarly, some of the plutonium analytical chemistry work that would have been done in CMRR-NF could instead be done in Lawrence Livermore’s old “Superblock” complex or at Savannah River. That would free up space in the lab’s 1970s-era Plutonium Facility— known as PF-4—for pit work.

A Range of Options to Consider

Medalia’s report also examines the possibility of converting Los Alamos’s new Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building (RLUOB) to a “Hazard Category 3” facility to permit it to hold more plutonium. Such a shift would be expensive and time consuming, he notes. But he also suggests some type of “regulatory relief” might make it possible to use RLUOB at lower cost. “Many regulations impose burdens on the nuclear weapons complex, including plutonium facilities, that to some analysts may seem disconnected from end goals, such as reducing dose in the event of an accident to a level below a specified threshold,” Medalia wrote.

Critically, such a move would, in Medalia’s words, “reduce cancellation risk.” He wrote, “The history of pit production efforts includes cases where decisions by Congress or the Administration have halted a major plutonium building after planning had started but before construction had begun. Conducting pit production support tasks in a building that already exists would reduce this risk.” Another option would be to build a copy of RLUOB, minus its office space, to do the necessary analytical chemistry work.

Could Process Enhancements Create Options?

Other options involve the processes themselves. One of the drivers for the need for plutonium-capable floor space is the stringent requirement for analytical chemistry sampling and analysis as pits are made. One way to reduce the need for plutonium lab space is to relax those standards, requiring fewer samples per pit, and require less precision. “Improved analytic instruments and improved understanding of plutonium and its impurities might permit reducing the number of samples,” Medalia wrote.

Medalia also considered the large construction options: building CMRR-NF, either at Los Alamos or elsewhere, or an entirely new plutonium complex to replace both the lab’s aging Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building and PF-4, the plutonium building where the pit manufacturing takes place. To weigh the costs, risk and benefits of the various construction and non-construction options, Medalia offered a menu of studies Congress might request, including:

— PF-4/RLUOB pit production capacity;
— Repurposing PF-4 space;
— Feasibility of turning RLUOB into a Hazard Category- 3 building;
— Risks of relaxing regulatory requirements for RLUOB;
— Doing analytical chemistry at Livermore or Savannah River; and
— Alternative Pu-238 sites

Blame for past failures, Medalia concluded, lies with both NNSA and Congress. Delays and cost growth on the part of NNSA make it difficult to budget, while Congress’s stop-start budget process, with its sequesters and continuing resolutions, makes it hard for nuclear program managers to plan. —From staff reports

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