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Re: DOE Reprogramming Request of 9/13/12 concerning NNSA plutonium sustainment

(For reference, an article published today in the Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor is provided below in its entirety, which provides some detail concerning this request)

September 28, 2012

Dear colleagues --

We have a number of critical questions regarding the Reprogramming Request (Request) that was submitted by the Department of Energy (DOE) to the armed services and appropriations committees on September 13, 2012 to address changes in the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA's) plutonium sustainment strategy.

We do not favor granting this request at this time.  Neither do we favor any precipitous secret negotiations over a so-far unwritten and unvetted new plan with a few members of Congress during a congressional recess and just prior to a presidential and congressional election in the complete absence of any programmatic need to do so.  Especially in light of NNSA's poor management record and lack of underlying budget and planning documents, we favor a much more measured approach that uses the normal appropriations process and rests upon a more mature planning and budgeting process.  This request appears to provide congressional endorsement for what look very much like new line items, but without line item responsibilities, management requirements, and without sufficient preliminary planning.

We have the following concerns:

  • As far as we know NNSA has not finalized its new plutonium strategy or produced any formal document precisely describing that strategy with supporting analyses.  There is a Los Alamos National Security (LANS) -generated draft plan, but as LANS is the primary financial beneficiary of the plan there is no reason to take its requirements and costs at anything approaching face value.  For example, sources tell us the proposed tunnel between PF-4 and the Radiological Laboratory, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB) is now estimated to cost $140 million.  We believe the tunnel is unnecessary and far too expensive.

  • As far as we know this new strategy has not been thoroughly vetted within government, or resolved into specific projects and programs with defensible cost estimates.

  • The new strategy has not been vetted in public, a step which has proven to be essential to any robust, defensible, objective outcome.

  • Neither Congress nor NNSA can possibly understand, at this point, how plutonium programs in heat source production, plutonium disposition, nonproliferation, nuclear fuels, pit aging, plutonium science, pit surveillance, pit design, pit production, and waste management all mesh together in existing facilities and across sites.  The new plan and specifically this Request is just one pig among many in the poke.  There is no integrated facility and mission plan for plutonium sustainment at the LANL site, let alone for all the NNSA sites.

  • The Request would provide funds in quantities that appear questionable for the stated work (as briefly described in the article below).  Wide cost ranges are given for activities which are only vaguely described.  Outside the narrowest of government circles, no justification has been provided for these actions -- and within those circles, only the flimsiest justification, if current indications and past experience are guides.  To take just one example, I have not been able to uncover the existence of any analysis or justification for a tunnel between the PF-4 plutonium facility and the RLUOB.  Such tunnels have never been necessary in the past at LANL for conveying small plutonium samples, in this case on the scale of grams or less, between buildings.  Is there a cost comparison between a below-ground tunnel and above-ground walkway options?  Dozens of heavily-armed guards are already present at the site.  The most stringent DOE orders do not require a tunnel.  Also, it is not clear whether the expenditures proposed for RLUOB lie within or outside the previous scope of work in this project.  The same applies to transferring work from the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) Building to PF-4.  Wasn't that already planned?

  • We have raised other questions about this strategy previously (pdf).

  • NNSA can spend as it chooses on the elements of its strategy in the next six months under the present continuing resolution (CR) without any further congressional action, assuming compliance with other laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

  • There is no remotely urgent unmet plutonium program need that is addressed in this Request.

  • Unspent funds are normally reclaimed in appropriations bills, which is better legislative practice because such bills involve the views of whole committees and of Congress, and because the relevant committees can evaluate the proposed Request in its overall context.  Why, again, is this Request necessary now? What's the rush?

  • When NNSA submits its plutonium strategy to Congress in the context of its FY2014 budget request, future years national security plan (FYNSP), stockpile stewardship and management plan (SSMP), and "section 1043" 10-year plan (See: GAO letter of Jun 7, 2012 re: absence of FY13 NNSA planning & budgeting documents, pdf) it will be much more possible to discuss and evaluate the merits of the plan.  The time might then be ripe for a request aimed at reclaiming unspent funds from the CMRR line item, if the matter is not resolved in the normal appropriations process.  In addition to these plans, no Nuclear Posture Implementation Plan has been released, which will affect future stockpile requirements and so on down to facility requirements and budgets.  As you know there is no approved pit production mission or even a pit production capacity requirement at this time.  No future Life Extension Program (LEP) involving pit production for any warhead has been approved.

  • The GAO, among many other parties, has been highly critical of NNSA's planning and budgeting (See: GAO raises questions about credibility of NNSA budget, Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor, Aug 3, 2012, citing GAO: Modernizing the Nuclear Security Enterprise, NNSA’s Reviews of Budget Estimates and Decisions on Resource Trade-offs Need Strengthening, Jul 2012, pdf).  See also Observations on NNSA's Management and Oversight of the Nuclear Security Enterprise, GAO-12-473T, Feb 16, 2012, NNSA Needs More Comprehensive Infrastructure and Workforce Data to Improve Enterprise Decision-making, February 2011, GAO-11-188, Actions Needed to Identify Total Costs of Weapons Complex Infrastructure and Research and Production Capabilities, GAO-10-582, Jun 21, 2010, and so on back for two or more decades.  Congress bears a considerable potion of the blame for NNSA's poor management, and rushing forward with a new plan at this time before the dust from the collapse of the last one has even settled, and before the long-overdue, legally-required planning documents have been produced would be most unwise.

  • The present draft, secret, informal (and no doubt continuously evolving) plutonium strategy has been devised by an agency and contractors which have a near-perfect track record of poor project management, often for reasons having to do with poorly-scoped requirements.

  • There are less than 6 weeks until the election.  Partisanship is running high, and Congress is not in session.  NNSA has come under major criticism this year, and is just now shutting down its aborted CMRR-NF project, which has been a fiasco.  Is right now the best time to stumble forward into a new plan, even prior to knowing what it is precisely?

  • In the absence of applicable legislation, the Budget Control Act will cut the Weapons Activities spending by 9.4% starting January 2, 2013.  It is a particularly inauspicious time to involve Congress in specific new commitments.  The CR maximizes NNSA's freedom of action.  Why curtail that?

  • Tremendous budgetary uncertainties lie ahead.  Just to take one example, NNSA faces large uncertainties in contractor pension fund obligations which have not been fully resolved.

  • Given the lack of a published plan, it is unclear whether environmental analysis is needed under NEPA.  Where federal actions that could significantly affect the environment are proposed, NEPA requires assessment of the environmental impacts of all reasonable alternatives to the proposed action at the earliest possible time.  In such cases, it is not only unwise but may also be illegal to irreversibly commit funds to specific alternative actions prior to such analysis and the formal record of decision which would follow, if such expenditures foreclose alternatives or bias the agency's choice.

It is no longer feasible to re-initiate the full Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) project.  This would be true for any new project on that scale (apart from those already supported by NNSA).  There is no foreseeable future funding stream that could be applied to such a project.  It would be unwise to follow the approach suggested by Senator Levin in his letter of September 19, namely to somehow keep the project alive.

Levin didn’t define in his letter how he wanted the agency to keep CMRR-NF alive, but the panel is believed to want the agency to keep the project team alive in some form, exploring alternate or less costly designs, keeping the facility’s safety basis updated, and maintaining design contracts with companies like Jacobs Engineering and Merrick that expire at the end of the year.

Keeping design teams alive for several years, in the absence of a clear mission need, is irresponsible, expensive, distracting, and will not produce any useful or coherent result.  Momentum for momentum's sake is not, we believe, what NNSA needs at this time.

Senator Levin's approach assumes there is a valid environmental impact statement (EIS) for the CMRR-NF project.  This is currently under litigation in New Mexico.  Delay of the project means, among other things, that the project's NEPA compliance rests on a 2003 EIS, as modified but not replaced by a 2011 Supplement, which will be at least 15 years old when and if the project resumes.  This could prove to be a non-trivial hurdle to CMRR-NF construction in the absence of de novo environmental analysis of alternatives to the project.  The Administration's approach as announced in February, which was one of deferral accompanied by a reexamination of project requirements, is sound, provided NNSA conducts a de novo NEPA analysis when project requirements -- which will depend on stockpile requirements and other future decisions -- are set.

What is important now is to carry forward the overall agency planning and budgeting process, so long delayed and now with potential budget cuts looming, so the requirements for existing (and any hypothetical future) facilities can be most accurately and wisely defined.  Much of this is inherently federal policy-making activity.  At the most this could involve prime contracts, but not design subcontracts managed by the very contractor which would benefit from any future construction project.  NNSA needs to become far more clear about program requirements prior to engaging design contractors, as implied by the present Request.  (In any event NNSA is certainly empowered to let contracts for existing programs and projects as it pleases in the absence of this reprogramming.)

To repeat, the present Request would create congressional authority for what look very much like new line items, without line item responsibilities or management requirements.

Thank you for your attention.

Greg Mello, Executive Director, Los Alamos Study Group

Nuclear Weapons and Material Monitor 9/28/12


The Senate Armed Services Committee appears willing to support a National Nuclear Security Administration plan to reprogram $120 million in Fiscal Year 2012 funds for an alternate plutonium sustainment strategy, with a catch: that the agency use part of the money to keep the deferred Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility alive. Suggesting he was disappointed that NNSA “undermined” Congress by deferring the project, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an opponent of the Administration’s plan to defer construction of CMRR-NF for at least five years, said in a Sept. 19 letter to acting Department of Energy Deputy Chief Financial Officer Joanne Choi that the panel views the NNSA’s deferral of the project as a cancellation.

In his letter, Levin said the committee was deferring action on the Sept. 13 reprogramming request, but he left the door open for support and suggested the panel would work with the NNSA and the Pentagon to “ensure that resources adequately meet both our near-term alternative plutonium sustainment and the long-term CMRR-NF needs. … The Committee is willing to provide funding for the alternative plutonium strategy as long as a portion of the $120 million is utilized to reconstitute the CMRR-NF facility in support of the New START Treaty,” Levin wrote in the letter.

The House Armed Services Committee, which like its counterparts in the Senate balked at the decision to defer work on the CMRR-NF earlier this year, is believed to be preparing a similar letter, NW&M Monitor has learned. The NNSA needs approval from four major Congressional committees to proceed with the reprogramming, including the House and Senate Appropriations committees. Both appropriations committees have supported the NNSA’s alternate plutonium strategy.

Levin didn’t define in his letter how he wanted the agency to keep CMRR-NF alive, but the panel is believed to want the agency to keep the project team alive in some form, exploring alternate or less costly designs, keeping the facility’s safety basis updated, and maintaining design contracts with companies like Jacobs Engineering and Merrick that expire at the end of the year. Since February, Los Alamos National Laboratory officials have been working to wrap up the project, and Los Alamos Site Office official Steve Fong said this week at a meeting in Los Alamos that the project staff has dwindled to about 50, down from several hundred earlier this year. Bechtel has shifted project manager Rick Holmes off of the project, and the project staff is expected to be fully disbanded by December. “The result is that not only has the human knowledge base been lost, a costly endeavor to re-constitute contractual activities associated with the design of the CMRR-NF will also have to be re-negotiated causing at least [a] two year delay regardless of whether the project is started now or three years from now,” Levin wrote. “The Committee is deeply concerned and troubled that the NNSA undermined the Congress and set into motion its cancellation plans without full Congressional consent.”

NNSA Details Reprogramming

In its reprogramming request, the NNSA detailed how the $120 million would be spent. It said that approximately $20-25 million would be spent on start-up activities at the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building, while $20-30 million would go to purchase additional analytical chemistry equipment for RLUOB. Another $20-25 million would go toward relocating analytical chemistry sample management/preparatory capabilities from the existing CMR facility to the lab’s Plutonium Facility (PF-4), and $20-30 million would be needed to relocate material characterization equipment from CMR to PF-4. The agency also said $15-25 million would be needed to build [sic: design; construction is expected to cost another $120 million] a tunnel between PF-4 and the RLUOB. The funds come from unspent money from the CMRR-NF project. “It should be noted that these activities will maintain near-term continuity of capabilities for plutonium support functions and represent the first phase of work that will complement future potential equipment procurements that may be needed to increase pit production capacity in PF-4,” the NNSA said in the request. “The reprogramming allows for initial investments in the infrastructure at LANL that will enable all future production scenarios while minimizing impacts to ongoing operations.”

Levin, however, was unconvinced. “A central tenant of our arms control policy is that as we draw down to fewer numbers of warheads, we will reduce the hedge or backup warheads, relying instead on an ability to reconstitute the hedge, based on a sound plutonium science capability provided by the CMRR-NF,” Levin wrote. “The cancellation decision and this associated reprogramming runs counter to the policy of relying on responsive infrastructure and stockpile stewardship science rather than deployed or hedge warheads.” Levin suggested that coupled with the $800 million to $1.13 billion estimated cost of the alternate plutonium strategy, the five-year delay would drive the  facility’s price tag up to between $5.6 and $7.2 billion. The facility is currently estimated to cost between $3.7 and $5.8 billion. “The sheer size of this cost escalation could lead to an inability to construct the CMRR-NF as proposed by the NNSA five years from now, an unacceptable worst case scenario that leaves our nation worse off in its ability to conduct plutonium science and engineering at Los Alamos,” Levin wrote.

Stephen Young, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted that the House and Senate Armed Services Committees largely stand alone in their opposition to the deferral of the project. “The Administration, including the Pentagon, the NNSA, the weapons labs, and the Congressional appropriations committees all support the delay,” Young wrote in an article published on “If I were a betting man, I’d side with the appropriators and the Pentagon, as that is a fairly powerful combination that usually gets its way. But the final word is not yet spoken, and will undoubtedly await Congressional approval of the alternative plutonium plan.”

Project Team Finds ‘Freezing Point’

In the Los Alamos meeting, Fong said that the project had tried to find a logical “freezing point” for the major design systems, like the fire protection system or the electrical system. “We take that to a logical point where we draw all the information together and leave that information for the next design team that comes in five years from now,” he said. “It’s not just a box of information; it’s a logical set, a discussion point that communicates where we were at, what our thinking was and what are the next steps for the design team to make.” Fong also said the excavated area for the nuclear facility will be fenced and the soil will be stabilized. All the equipment will be removed. Some lagging aspects of the close-out will stretch into 2013, Fong said, but he could not say for sure how long that might be.

Fong acknowledged that the project had spent about $425 million over the last several years on designing the plutonium handling and processing facility. Despite the expense and another six months of concluding design work, the project is no farther along on providing a reliable baseline cost projection for the nuclear facility. “We did not go through another range estimate,” Fong said. He added that one of the major open issues, whether to dig a deep or shallow base for the building had not been resolved, but that the cost differential amounted to about $30 -$40 million. “We’re going to leave that [decision] for the next team to make,” he said. Asked by Scott Kovak of Nuclear Watch New Mexico what percentage of the design had been reached, Fong said, “We haven’t defined it that way. We’ve only looked at it in terms of what is the right stopping point.”

Phil Schuetz, who replaced Holmes as the lab’s CMRR-NF project manager, said the project scope books that organize that information are still being compiled. He said that they record “where the design left off, what the major open issues were that we had identified that we hadn’t yet resolved and anything else that would help another organization or individuals who would potentially start up the design several years from now, giving them a head start by capturing where all the information is.”

RLUOB Year Away From Increased Pu Handling

The Radiological Laboratory and Office Utility Building, the smaller building in the CMRR project that has already been built and equipped, has been turned over to operations, certified for handling a small amount of plutonium to begin, but with approximately four times that amount to be allowed in another year under NNSA’s plans to maximize capabilities without the nuclear facility. David Fuehne, LANL’s air emissions team leader, said air emissions monitoring would begin when the first phase of radiological operations starts there in mid-November “We’ll do stack monitoring weekly when it’s an operational source,” he said. “It’s reported annually as part of our annual emissions report for the EPA which comes out June 30th of each year.”

The project managers declined to provide information about alternative plans for the analytical chemistry, materials characterization and plutonium storage, among other capabilities that the nuclear facility was designed to provide. Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group asked, “More broadly, does anyone speak to the process for alternative plutonium sustainment and any documents and plans that will develop from that?” Fong said he had no information on the alternate strategy. “There is a lot of discussion on that. I can’t answer any of those questions. I’m a project guy. I wear a project hat. It’s a pointy hat. We drive forward. We try to get things done. We try to close up things.”

    —Todd Jacobson and staff reports

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