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"Forget the Rest" blog

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Congress Chafes Over Nuke Costs

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
   
   
    Members of an apparently restive Congress have sent several pointed messages to nuclear weapon program managers in the past month: If you want the budget increases you're asking for, you'll have to do a better job at managing program costs.
   
    The National Nuclear Security Administration's nuclear weapons program, notorious for major project cost overruns, has been targeted by the Obama administration for a 10 percent budget increase next year, to $7 billion. Included in the request is money to ramp up several multibillion dollar projects, including a big new plutonium lab at Los Alamos that, if built, appears likely to be the most expensive construction project in New Mexico history.
   
    But if you want to know how much the project and a number of similar projects will cost, you're out of luck. In the federal budget column where "Total Estimated Cost" is supposed to go, the Los Alamos plutonium lab and two other enormous construction efforts are listed as "TBD" — To Be Determined.
   
    As Congress scrutinizes the budget request, congressional auditors are raising questions. "NNSA cannot accurately identify the total costs to operate and maintain weapons facilities and infrastructure," according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.
   
    The GAO report reads in detail like an arcane accounting exercise, examining the ways Los Alamos and other National Nuclear Security Administration nuclear weapon design, manufacturing and maintenance sites track the dollars under their stewardship.
   
    But the bipartisan statement sent out by the leadership of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee skips the accounting and cuts to the chase.
   
    "We need to know exactly where the money is going and how it is being used," said Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., in the June 21 statement.
   
    "NNSA plans to seek over $29 billion over the next four fiscal years and it is absolutely essential that NNSA be able to justify this increase and explain how it will benefit stockpile stewardship and management," added Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio.
   
    Meanwhile in the Senate, members of the Armed Services Committee earlier this month tacked a section onto their annual defense bill suggesting they too are interested in keeping the National Nuclear Security Administration on a shorter fiscal leash. If there are cost overruns, the language requires the

NNSA to go before Congress and justify why projects should not be killed.
   
    The Senate language is in part targeted at the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility.
   
    In the late 1990s, when federal officials concluded they needed to replace the old 1950s-era Los Alamos plutonium lab known as the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building, they put the initial price tag at $350 million to $500 million.
   
    They already have spent $329 million building the first phase of the new lab complex, an office building with some lab space. But the main lab building, where the plutonium work will be done, is perhaps a decade away from completion, and federal officials frankly admit they have no idea how much it will cost.
   
    There is a $4 billion placeholder in the Obama administration's Fiscal Year 2011 budget request for the plutonium lab. But in an exchange during an April hearing with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., NNSA chief Tom D'Agostino acknowledged it would be 2012 or 2013 — more than a decade after the project began — that nuclear weapons program managers would have a baseline cost estimate for how much it will actually cost. And a recent presentation by a top lab manager suggested we might not know the final price tag until 2014.
   
    Despite the uncertainty, the NNSA has asked Congress to more than double the budget for work on the project next year, to $225 million. That will pay for design work and initial construction activities.
   
    The structure needed to protect the nuclear material from earthquake risk requires so much concrete, for example, that the lab plans to build a concrete batch plant on site. Lab officials hope to do that and other preparatory work beginning in 2011.
   
    Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, an activist who has doggedly tracked and questioned the rising costs of the plutonium lab, argues that launching construction without knowing the final cost is both bad practice and probably violates the internal rules of the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration's parent agency.
   
    In the past, Congress has stood by as if it were helpless in the face of escalating costs for major projects the nuclear weapons labs said were vital for national security. Occasionally members would complain, but eventually the bills were paid.
   
    The recent noises made by the House and Senate armed services committees suggest fresh attention to the problem. We will be watching to see if they follow through.
   
    UpFront is a daily news and opinion column. John Fleck can be reached at 505-823-3916 or jfleck@abqjournal.com.


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