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"Forget the Rest" blog

For immediate release 9/24/08

House, Senate Largely Endorse Bush Nuke Plans
in Defense Authorization Bill

$2.6 Billion Plutonium “Hotel” Complex at Los Alamos Authorized Again, with Conditions

Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200

Albuquerque – On Tuesday the House and Senate Armed Services committees completed work on the FY2009 Defense Authorization bill.  Details are available at the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) web site.  The House approved the bill today and Senate passage seems certain. 

            Appropriators are widely expected to approve a Continuing Resolution (CR) that would fund nuclear weapons programs at current levels until some time early next year. 

            This press release concerns only selected portions of the nuclear weapons part of the Act, discussed on p. 214 and following pages in the Explanatory Statement (pdf).

            Overall this bill authorizes nuclear weapons activities within the Department of Energy (DOE) at 99.9% of the funding level requested by the Bush Administration, cutting only $7 million (M) from the $6.6 billion (B) request. 

            The Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) is not authorized.  Work on RRW concepts and designs will continue under other programs. 

            Authorized funding for plutonium warhead core (“pit”) manufacturing will be cut $20 M from the request, in line with the HASC markup.  The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) had proposed to cut pit manufacturing by $50 M.  This past spring, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found a number of problems and issues associated with pit production; see also this press release

            Senior cognizant officials in government have told members of the Study Group as recently as this month that there are no actual external, i.e. military, requirements for pit production. 

            The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the largest construction project in the nuclear weapons complex, would be authorized at $100.2 M (the requested amount), with $50 M of this amount to be held back until safety features of the design, including seismic safety, have been resolved to the satisfaction of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Administrator. 

            Based on NNSA ballpark estimates, the SASC estimated total CMRR cost with associated demolition at $2.6 B, a figure that to our knowledge all parties believe to be the least possible, not the most likely or the greatest possible.  NNSA expects to proffer its first “firm” cost estimate for the Nuclear Facility in February of 2010.  The CMRR project began in late 2002, more than 7 years before NNSA expects to provide its first serious cost estimate.  The first preliminary cost estimate given to Congress (in February of 2003, for both buildings) was $600 M, about one-fourth of today’s best guess. 

            The CMRR consists of two buildings, with appurtenances.  The first building (the “Rad Lab”) is over half completed and is expected to cost $164 M, not counting lab fixtures.  Sufficient construction funds for this building have already been appropriated.  The second building (the Nuclear Facility) is expected to cost over $2 B – how much more than this is not clear.  It is still in preliminary design and it has unresolved seismic issues, partly due to its proposed open floor plan and associated potential harmonic flexure of the roof and floor(s) under vertical seismic loads. 

            In May of this year members of the DNFSB told the Study Group the other safety issues were nearing resolution.  To our knowledge it is not yet fully clear when, how, or at what expense the outstanding seismic issues will be resolved. 

            LANL as a whole is currently operating under a “Justification for Continued Operation” (JCO) in the face of non-compliance with federal seismic criteria and nuclear safety regulations. 

            While the CMRR’s primary raison d’etre for the weapons program (which funds its construction and operation) is to facilitate pit production, various other plutonium programs (and various government actors) increasingly view the CMRR as facilitating a kaleidoscope of their own pet projects and programs.  NNSA, claiming to be unsure of the full gamut of future purposes, would build the CMRR Nuclear Facility as a plutonium “hotel” (NNSA’s term) capable of a wide variety of future missions.

            Some of these missions would involve subsequent modular expansion, as discussed in the Complex Transformation Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement and elsewhere.

            The proposed cost of the CMRR is difficult to understand without some context. 

            In 1978, according to a personal communication from the project manager at the time, DOE completed LANL’s existing TA-55 PF-4 plutonium facility for $75 M. 

            This figure, inflated by the Building Cost Index (BCI) maintained by Engineering News-Record () since the early years of this century, is equivalent to $201 M today.  This is 10% of the latest cost estimate for the CMRR Nuclear Facility. 

            PF-4 has 59,600 sq. ft. of Security Category I/Hazard Category II nuclear space.  The CMRR NF would have 22,500 sq. ft. of Category I/II nuclear space.  Thus the CMRR Nuclear Facility will add 38% more Cat I/II nuclear space to that present at PF-4 today. 

            This additional nuclear space, the supposed raison d'être of the proposed CMRR Nuclear Facility, will thus cost at least 26 times as much per sq. ft. as this same kind of space cost in PF-4 in 1978 in constant construction dollars.  (Comparisons using the Consumer Price Index are more unfavorable to the CMRR.) 

            This present comparison assumes no further CMRR cost inflation.  Further cost inflation is however likely, as all parties seem to agree. 

            Following a conceptual lead suggested by John Fleck at the Albuquerque Journal, we now know that the CMRR, if completed, would be the largest single construction project in the history of New Mexico in dollar terms – by a factor of at least 6.  (The two interstate highways as they cross the state are possible exceptions, but these were built piecemeal.)





Then-current $

In 2008 $

via ENR (est.)




Elephant Butte Dam





Golden Gate Bridge





San Juan Chama Diversion





    (doubtful if this is the complete cost)





Cochiti Dam










Big I Interchange, Albuquerque







San Juan Chama drinking water project, Albuquerque  



Railrunner extension to Santa Fe



DARHT (very approximate)



LANL CMRR, spring 2008 estimate by Senate Armed Services Committee based on NNSA




            Notice that the CMRR, if completed, would cost roughly 3 times what the Golden Gate Bridge cost in 1937, again in constant construction dollars. 

            We have not yet compared CMRR costs to the possible federal portion of a model infrastructure renewal plan for de-carbonizing the New Mexico economy and in the process creating tens of thousands of permanent new, good jobs in New Mexico.  Yet back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that the government cost of such a program, if wisely leveraged, might not be much more than the cost of the CMRR.  We invite you to make such a comparison yourself. 

            Study Group Director Greg Mello: “These are totally wrong spending priorities.  We need funding for real human security, not for plutonium ‘hotels.’  If NNSA truly believes it needs more nuclear space -- and it doesn't need that space -- NNSA should not abandon its perfectly good plutonium facility in Livermore

            “The CMRR Nuclear Facility is very likely to cost more than $3 billion, perhaps much more.  Like many DOE projects it may never be completed.  Especially in the light of today’s fiscal crisis, NNSA needs to adopt a conservative approach to its facilities and programs.”

            “Today’s nuclear weapons authorizations are the product of an all-too-passive Congress unable to offer a direction different from that provided by the President or to even thoroughly review the facts at hand.  With the largely token exception of not authorizing the RRW, Congress has chosen to wait and evaluate these programs another day. 

            “Whether we choose to wait for John, Barack, or Godot, we must face the fact that the quest for the nuclear “winning weapon” – in more fashionable terms, a credible nuclear deterrent – involves the U.S. in political, moral, and fiscal contradictions.  Like North Korea, we are subject to a binding legal obligation to complete the disarmament process.  It is to our advantage to get on with the job.  The present nuclear defense authorization endorses policies of the past.  We maintain them at our peril.”




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