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As the National Nuclear Security Administration continues to study its plutonium options at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the wake of the deferral of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility, the Government Accountability Office urged the agency this week to think long-term as it zeroes in on a plutonium solution. The NNSA is considering a modular approach to meeting the nation’s plutonium needs that would hinge on the phased construction of several smaller buildings, but it has also studied utilizing existing space at the lab, as well as space at other sites, to meet its plutonium mission. In a report released this week, the GAO questioned whether the agency will “make costly investments in short-term facilities that may ultimately not address its longer-term plutonium research needs,” adding, “It is imperative that NNSA make prudent investments that right-size the solution with the actual and anticipated needs or it may continue to spend significant sums of money with little to show for it.”

To ensure that it makes the right investments, the GAO urged DOE and the Pentagon to reassess the nation’s plutonium research needs. An assessment of those needs has not been performed since the need for CMRR-NF was revalidated in 2008, the GAO said. “To ensure that NNSA’s investments in plutonium research facilities and capabilities result in an operationally effective and affordable solution, we recommend that the Secretary of Energy continue efforts to assess how plutonium research and other capability needs and stockpile requirements have changed, if at all, since the needs were revalidated in 2008, and develop a plan to appropriately meet the nation’s near-term and longer-term plutonium needs,” the GAO said.

NNSA: Evaluation of Options Ongoing

In a response to the report, NNSA Associate Administrator for Management and Budget Cynthia Lersten said the agency agreed in principle with the recommendations and had begun to evaluate options for the plutonium strategy as part of its preparation for the Fiscal Year 2015 budget. She said Los Alamos staff as well as staff from the Department of Defense’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office would be involved in the evaluation, which includes a business case analysis of the agency’s plutonium options.

Because the NNSA is still studying its options, it hasn’t settled on a price tag for the modular approach. But the GAO outlined the price tag of one of the other options considered, reporting that preliminary estimates by the lab have put the potential cost to just move capabilities among facilities at the lab between $480 and $820 million. Such a move, which would involve the expanded use of the recently completed Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building and the lab’s existing Plutonium Facility, would come with several other concerns, the GAO said. The GAO said a 2012 LANL study noted that other plutonium research missions at the lab could be cramped if other lab space was devoted to meeting the nuclear weapons, though the GAO report revealed that a study of the space in the lab’s Plutonium Facility had not been completed. “Following the study, NNSA tasked the M&O contractor for LANL with assessing the space inside PF-4 to see if it could be repurposed to better support plutonium research for the nuclear weapons program and other mission areas,” the GAO said.

Using Other Sites Could Lead to Delays

Another option that was studied involved using additional facilities at other sites, but the GAO said the study found that could also lead to delays in completing analytical chemistry and materials characterization work because of the time needed to transfer samples between sites, the GAO said. According to the GAO, the breadth of the sites being considered is larger than the NNSA previously has announced, and includes Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Nevada National Security Site as well as Idaho National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Hanford Analytical Services, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Savannah River National Laboratory, and the New Brunswick Laboratory in Illinois. It’s not clear what facilities at each site would be utilized. “Using facilities at other sites will require time for NNSA to plan for and then transport materials from LANL to facilities at other sites,” the GAO said. “This in turn could increase the total time needed to complete the analyses for weapon pits.”

The government watchdog agency also noted that public opposition to plutonium transportation between sites could delay plans. “Plans for transporting plutonium or other radioactive materials from LANL to facilities at other sites could also spur public opposition that may cause schedule delays or create other impediments to efficiently conduct analytical chemistry or materials characterization at other facilities in the nuclear security enterprise,” the GAO said.

One other concern involves the lack of knowledgeable analytical chemistry staff, which the GAO said could slow work on any of the plutonium options. It said the Los Alamos study noted that staffing for analytical chemistry at the lab had decreased by 60 percent from 2005 to 2012 because of retirements and budget cuts, and any of the options being considered would strain the lab’s workforce. “Staff shortages could adversely impact the ability of NNSA and LANL to meet proposed schedules for its nuclear weapons work,” the GAO said. It takes years for staff to develop analytical chemistry expertise, the GAO noted. “The uncertainty of where the new capabilities will be located or what the level of capacity is needed has complicated planning efforts,” the GAO said. —Todd Jacobson

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