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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 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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