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"Forget the Rest" blog


Raise Your Hand if You Think the Expansion of Our Nuclear-Industrial Complex Escapes Iran

By Russ Wellen, May 23, 2011

Focal Points has frequently featured posts about the distinctly Soviet era-sounding Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility. The CMRR-NF, as it's known, is a project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory of such mind-numbing expense that it boggles the mind (doggles the boon?).

A watchdog association called the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) has been spearheading efforts to stop the CMRR-NF in its tracks. Permit me to excerpt an April 25 post that I blurbed: "Nuclear watchdogs take to the courtroom to halt the manufacture of a new facility to build the part that makes nuclear weapons explode."

Forces Opposed to Dangerous, Extravagant Nuke Project Get Day in Court 
If you're not a regular reader, you may be surprised to learn the federal government seeks to ram through a new nuclear facility that's intolerable on a number of counts.
1. Its intended purpose is to build plutonium pits -- the living, breathing heart of a nuclear weapons, where the chain reaction occurs. In other words, mad science at its most extreme.
2. Its projected cost is greater than all the work done on the Manhattan Project in New Mexico during World War II.
3. The land the building will occupy is seismically, uh, challenged (subject to seismic shocks twice as great as those experienced at Fukushima).

At the time the New Mexico nuclear watchdog group, the Los Alamos Study Group, was about to present its long-gestating lawsuit against the NNSA and the Department of Energy. In a recent LASG newsletter, Executive Director Greg Mello explains.

At 9:00 am Wednesday April 27th, in the Brazos Courtroom . . . of the Federal Courthouse . . . Albuquerque, the Honorable Judge Judith Herrera will hear arguments from the [LASG] and the federal defendants -- the Department of Energy . . . and the [NNSA] over whether final design of the CMRR-NF . . . should be halted pending analysis of alternatives to the project.

The two opposing motions:

. . . whether a) to throw out  [LASG's] lawsuit . . . or b) temporarily pause the project . . . in order to give the court the opportunity to hear evidence on the [LASG's] contention that the project cannot proceed without a valid, new environmental impact statement [EIS] [to address, primarily, the sesmic risk].

Hearing held, the  LASG is cautiously optimistic. Noted nuclear physicist Frank von Hippel, who, during Perestroika, helped sell the Russians on monitoring and verification (as chronicled in David Hoffman's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Dead Hand), testified. LASG's lawyer asked von Hippel why he thought a new study of alternatives to the CMRR-NF was called? In part, he replied:

The need for large-scale pit production has vanished. In 2003, the [NNSA] was arguing that the [United States] needed the capability to produce 125 to 450 pits per year by 2020 to replace the pits in the US weapon stockpile that would be 30 to 40 years old by then. . . . But, in 2006, we learned that US pits were so well made that, according to a Congressionally-mandated review of Los Alamos and Livermore studies on pit aging, "Most primary types have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years as regards aging of plutonium." [Besides, although] the Los Alamos and Livermore National Laboratories have been lobbying to develop and manufacture new-design "reliable replacement warheads," and the Bush Administration supported the idea, Congress refused in 2007 to fund the program.

Also the updated U.S. Nuclear Posture Review Report mandates that

In any decision to [develop] warhead LEPs [Life Extension Programs], the United States will give strong preference to options for refurbishment or reuse. . . . the preferred strategy is to reuse existing pits where necessary, or simply refurbish the balance of the warhead. . . . As of the end of Fiscal Year 2009, the total size of the U.S. warhead stockpile was about 5,000 warheads . . . and about 14,000 pits recovered from [decommissioned] warheads . . .  were in storage at the Pantex warhead assembly/disassembly facility in Amarillo.

In other words

There will be no shortage of pits to reuse.

Hope those concerned that the United States would run out of these infernal little internal destruction machines will rest easy now.

Also testifying was executive director Mello. When asked by LASG's lawyer about the CMRR-NF's estimated cost, he responded.

In November 2010, the White House estimated the budget at "$3.7 to 5.8 billion." Defendants recently pushed back the projected date of a reliable cost estimate to 2015.

In fact (emphasis added)

In its submissions to Congress, NNSA is just writing "TBD" in the future cost and schedule columns.

Echoing von Hippel (or vice versa; not sure who testified first), Mello explained that the Department of Energy's science advisory group, which is referred to as JASON

. . . reviewed research done at LANL and Livermore on pit life. JASON concurred with these labs that most U.S. pits would last for a century or more. There are also extra pits for almost every kind of warhead, thousands in all, and these reserves [as von Hippel also mentioned] are growing as warheads are dismantled. . . . Production of new plutonium pits is not necessary to maintain a very large, diverse, powerful nuclear weapons stockpile for several decades to come.

Meanwhile the NNSA is attempting to ram through a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), instead of an entirely new EIS. But

. . . issuing a SEIS at this point could not achieve NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] compliance [since NNSA] is . . . in the process of executing it as fast as it can. . . . To enforce NEPA, the Court should put the brakes on this juggernaut and then look for a way to achieve an objective NEPA analysis.

After all, Mello reminded us:

The Administration has made agreements with Senators to complete the Nuclear Facility.

Von Hippel expanded on this when the LASG lawyer asked "Why then, with this huge cost over-run and lack of mission, is the Administration pushing so hard to build the CMRR-NF?"

This appears to be primarily because a number of Republican Senators [led by Jon Kyl (R-AZ)] extracted a commitment from the Administration to build the CMRR-NF and a facility for producing weapon-components [at another] site in exchange for their votes to ratify the New START Treaty.

But, of course,

In the end, Senator Kyl did not vote to ratify the New START Treaty.

Von Hippel then speculates on how Kyl's double-cross, as it were, might have affect the administration's current attitude toward the CMRR-NF.

My guess is that, if this Court required it, some in the Obama Administration would welcome being forced to have a relook at alternatives to the CMRR-NF.

With so much invested in nuclear disarmament as an achievement that the Obama administration can brandish, scarcely does it wish to be played again by the opposition. As it is, the sincerity of its disarmament intentions is called into question by the CMRR-NF. Don't think nations such as Iran aren't watching the progress CMRR-NF and posing the hypothetical question "And you wonder what we want with nuclear weapons?"

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