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A new report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is raising questions about whether Los Alamos National Laboratory will be able to get out of the aging Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility by 2019 as planned. In a newly released Dec. 27 site rep report, the DNFSB said repurposing the lab’s Plutonium Facility (PF- 4) over the next five years—which is necessary for the lab to move out of the CMR facility—“will be challenging in an operating nuclear facility,” and the effort could be further complicated by a Congressional mandate to complete the work under a line item construction project.

Such a mandate would limit the amount of repurposing work the lab can perform until a line item project is established, which officials familiar with the project say could jeopardize the 2019 date for getting out of CMR. A line item project “compresses the schedule and starts to put risk in,” the official told NW&M Monitor. “There’s either going to be a gap in capability for some period of time or there has to be a way to get it done faster.”

Pu Strategy Money, With Strings

Lawmakers signed off on the lab’s new plutonium strategy last year, with the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee approving $43.3 million of the NNSA’s $120 million reprogramming, but they did so with a host of strings attached. 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 CMR facility and to achieve operational readiness of the RLUOB, but the appropriators said the money can’t be used to “perform construction activities, including reconfiguring PF-4 to meet enduring plutonium infrastructure requirements.” However, they left the door open for the agency to come back and request money for that work separately as a new line item construction project.

PF-4 Cleanout ‘Not a Trivial Exercise’

According to the DNFSB, at least three rooms in the Plutonium Facility have to be repurposed to allow analytical chemistry and materials characterization work that had been planned for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility to be moved from CMR. Los Alamos is pursuing a modular plan to replace the capabilities planned for CMRR-NF that includes utilizing the existing Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building (RLUOB), but it also must repurpose parts of the Plutonium Facility as part of that strategy. The DNFSB said repurposing the Plutonium Facility will require contaminated equipment from at least three rooms be removed, the procurement and installation of new equipment in the rooms, the completion of readiness activities, and the validation of testing results against CMR’s equipment.

Cleaning out the Plutonium Facility rooms could take about a year per room, the official said. It involves removing gloveboxes from the rooms and dealing with waste that will be generated, though the official said some of the removal work could reduce the calculated offsite dose estimate for the Plutonium Facility, which is a long-standing concern of the DNFSB. “It’s not a trivial exercise,” the official said. There is no official schedule for the project or cost estimate.

Concerns Raised About Line Item Process

The official noted that a line item project could take years to reach Critical Decision 3, the start of construction, and suggested work to clean out the Plutonium Facility rooms could begin now while a line item project is pursued for the portion of the project involving the rest of the project, which is expected to be the most expensive and complicated portion of the work. “Having to not do anything in that facility just compresses the amount of time available, and that’s if everything works perfectly,” the official said. In its Dec. 27 report, the DNFSB said that if the lab can’t repurpose the Plutonium Facility by 2019, “they will need to examine tradeoffs between continuing programmatic activities in CMR, utilizing off-site vendors, and limiting support to the program.” The DNFSB said NNSA is expected to issue “high-level program direction” on the plutonium strategy later this year.

Los Alamos spokesman Kevin Roark called the CMR exit strategy “complex and a challenging issue” in a statement provided to NW&M Monitor. “The materials characterization and analytical chemistry capability of CMR is essential to the Laboratory’s mission, and must be maintained,” he said. “Transitioning programmatic activities out of CMR continues to be a focus of both the Laboratory and NNSA with a variety of challenges and options. The Laboratory will continue to work closely with NNSA to develop a workable path forward that meets mission objectives and realistic timelines.” —Todd Jacobson

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