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Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor

August 11, 2016

GAO Challenges NNSA’s Plutonium Pit Production Plans

By Alissa Tabirian

August 11, 2016
Morning Briefing Monitor

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) may have overstated the cost savings of its updated plutonium analysis strategy, which may not meet the agency’s planned rates of plutonium pit production for nuclear weapons life-extension programs, the Government Accountability Office determined in a report released Tuesday.

The NNSA approved the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s (LANL) Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) project in 2005 to replace its Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility, which dates to the 1950s and hosts the agency’s plutonium analysis operations – testing the nuclear weapons cores to ensure their reliability. The CMRR project initially involved construction of a large nuclear facility and separate radiological laboratory that would host plutonium analysis equipment, with an estimated cost range of $745 million to $975 million and completion due by 2017. By 2012, NNSA’s cost estimate for the project had increased to as much as $5.8 [as much as $7 B, reports GAO. That was new information. We had heard >$10 B was an internal NNSA figure at the time, for UPF as well. The FY12 CBR says up to $5.9 B.] billion and operational date pushed back potentially to 2022, GAO found.

After spending $450 million [$495 million, stated in the FY17 budget request, p. 351. This was after rescissions and so is a stable number.] on the project, DOE in 2014 canceled the CMRR construction plans and NNSA adopted a new strategy to maintain plutonium analysis capabilities without constructing the new site, using existing facilities instead. This would involve installing plutonium analysis equipment and using space in LANL’s radiological lab and Plutonium Facility, as well as “evaluating options” to build modular nuclear facility lab space at LANL at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion to $2 billion, and with a 2024 completion date. Last November DOE also approved implementation of a second part of the strategy, the Plutonium Modular Approach, to build modular nuclear facilities for $1.5 billion to $3 billion by 2027.

According to the GAO, NNSA did not outline the plutonium analysis capacity that the revised CMRR project should provide, an otherwise key performance parameter. “NNSA has determined that it needs sufficient analysis capacity to support producing pits, including at planned rates of 10 pits per year in 2024 and 50 to 80 pits per year by 2030, but an NNSA analysis shows that the revised CMRR project may not support these rates,” the GAO said.

Specifically, LANL’s management and operations contractor, Los Alamos National Security, in 2015 analyzed the pit production rate that the new CMRR project could support and found that it “may not provide sufficient analysis capacity to support a 10-pits-per-year production rate.” The GAO noted that the NNSA has taken some steps to increase plutonium analysis capacity, including approval of restructuring of the new CMRR project that involves upgrading the hazard category of the radiological facility to hold higher levels of plutonium.

NNSA said in its comments to the report that the GAO misinterpreted the relationship between plutonium pit production and the CMRR project, arguing that the assessment “incorrectly implies that the driver for the CMRR project and the project’s ultimate success depend on meeting plutonium pit production needs when the goal of the project is to replace specific plutonium analysis capabilities.”

The equipment being installed under the CMRR project “does not manufacture pits, and it is not feasible within the scope of the CMRR project to associate the performance of an individual piece of analytical laboratory equipment with a pit production requirement, as the report suggests,” NNSA spokeswoman Francie Israeli said by email.

The GAO also found that the NNSA’s estimated cost for the revised CMRR project is lower than the cost of the previously approved project, “but NNSA may have overstated its cost savings” because it did not account for work being deferred for now. Moreover, the revised project’s program schedule was limited to near-term work through 2017, and “NNSA does not plan to develop a complete schedule for the entire CMRR project until mid-2017,” the GAO found.

The GAO recommendations to the NNSA administrator include identifying plutonium analysis capacity performance parameters in the revised CMRR project documents; outlining plans for obtaining greater analysis capacity if the new project will fall short on NNSA’s pit production plans; and developing schedules for the new project, particularly an integrated master schedule for all activities.

The NNSA said in response that it will by next September update its plutonium strategy with “estimates of the requirements and additional means, if needed, to achieve the required [plutonium analysis] capacity.”

“NNSA is concerned that the report does not reflect the depth and breadth of steps taken in the last two years to improve project management in accordance with the Secretary of Energy’s new policies,” Israeli said. “As a result of these improvements, NNSA has high confidence in its budget estimates for the CMRR Project, so long as it receives consistent predictable funding for the project’s duration.”

Israeli noted that since the approval of the subprojects under the new CMRR strategy, “NNSA has been completing subprojects under budget and ahead of schedule.”

“NNSA is applying similar management improvements to the current subprojects, giving us confidence that we similarly can deliver these subprojects on budget and on schedule,” she said.

According to Israeli, “NNSA believes current actions will provide greater insight into the CMRR project’s anticipated impact on the Plutonium Strategy. The equipment associated with the CMRR project will support Los Alamos plutonium program needs for at least the next decade.”

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