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"Forget the Rest" blog


For immediate release December 20, 2013

Defense bill passes Congress, mandates new underground plutonium factory “modules” in Los Alamos – prior to studies of need and impact

Latest plan smaller than previous but likely to cost billion or more

(Manhattan Project National Historic Park not in bill)

Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200 office, 505-577-8563 cell

Last night the Senate passed the annual National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (H.R. 3304), completing the congressional approval process.  The President will sign the bill.

The bill contains two sections (3117 and 3123) which bear on the future of plutonium programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the nation’s center for plutonium warhead (“pit”) manufacture and related plutonium activities.

The first of these sections mandates the design and construction of at least two underground plutonium factory “modules” at LANL in 2015, provided the Nuclear Weapons Council (composed of the secretaries of Energy and Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) approves.  If it does, the Department of Energy (DOE) is ordered to include these modules in its budget request to Congress, and to fully complete and start using these modules by 2027.

The second section mandates “a strategy for the integrated management of plutonium,” to be based on specific research programs to include (even more) study of pit aging phenomena in deployed warhead pits.  This topic responds to results obtained at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) showing that plutonium in pits is metallurgically stable to at least 150 years.  (See “Plutonium at 150 years: Going Strong and Aging Gracefully, LLNL Sci. &Tech. Rev., Dec 2012; “Plutonium in Warhead Cores (“Pits”) Stable to 150 Years, Los Alamos Study Group, Dec 6, 2012; “Comments on LANL’s response to the Los Alamos Study Group,” Dec 12, 2012.)[1]

All publicly-available background material regarding these proposed underground modules has been collected and posted by the Study Group here.

According to several reliable oral and documentary sources in government, the latest version of the plan for plutonium “modules” involves circa 5,000 net square foot single-purpose bunkers, each of which would house a single dangerous plutonium activity, in what would be an expanded plutonium factory and research complex at LANL.  One module would function as a plutonium foundry.  Another would house all LANL Pu-238 work, an isotope far more radiotoxic than weapons-grade plutonium (WgPu).  The third (in a three-module plan) might house operations involving plutonium dissolved in acid. 

The modules would be connected by one or more tunnels to the existing main plutonium facility (PF-4) and to the new Radiological Laboratory, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB).  RLUOB would be upgraded to handle roughly 150 times as much plutonium than originally planned for that facility (6.5 grams WgPu).

The module strategy has been endorsed by the DoD’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) group (“New Pu strategy endorsed by DoD CAPE, but UPF cost questions raised,” Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor, Dec 6, 2013).

In September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report critical of National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) plutonium plans (“Modernizing the Nuclear Security Enterprise: Observations on NNSA’s Options for Meeting Its Plutonium Research Needs; see also “GAO presses NNSA to think long-term on plutonium mission at Los Alamos,” Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor, Sep 13, 2013).  The principal GAO finding was that NNSA had not reevaluated its plutonium needs in five years and needed to do so.  NNSA concurred.

The authorization bill, by its nature, authorizes appropriations but provides no funding.

Los Alamos Study Group Director Greg Mello: “It is a pity that the armed services committees prematurely chose the “module” plan prior to NNSA’s review of its own requirements and NNSA’s completion and publication of its plutonium infrastructure plan, as well as prior to the more complete congressional review of plutonium policy options now underway.

“Endorsement of this plan by two branches of government “jumps the shark” regarding the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  NEPA requires an environmental impact statement (EIS) in which all reasonable alternatives are reviewed prior to choosing one.  Unless such an EIS is prepared and a subsequent formal Record of Decision (ROD) filed, DOE cannot proceed with any plan.  DOE’s decision of record is to build a different project than this (and in the same place), the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF).  For any major federal action with significant environmental impacts, DOE cannot change its choice of alternatives without an EIS which analyzes the environmental impacts of that choice, alongside all other alternatives which are “reasonable.”  There is no such EIS.  DOE has not analyzed alternatives to CMRR-NF since 2003, and none of the alternatives examined in 2003 or since are reasonable today, according to DOE.

“Multiple experienced government sources who have seen the still-secret plan tell us that this would be a multi-billion-dollar project, and already problems are starting to appear.  We believe the plan has inherent technical defects, and needlessly pushes back safety improvements to the plutonium infrastructure at LANL as well as the closure of the unsafe Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) building.  We believe existing facilities, without CMR, are fully adequate for all present and foreseeable future program requirements, including more pit production capacity than could ever be needed.

“Last year the armed services committees wrote, and successfully passed through Congress, a bill that required construction of CMRR-NF, long after DOE, the military, and even LANL had abandoned the project.  What will be the fate of this latest mandate?  Time will tell.

“One of the most troubling aspects of this secret plan is how few people have seen and discussed it.  Too many details are “to be determined.”  Experience shows this is a recipe for failure.  We are aware that LANL has so far failed to provide to Congress some of the most basic studies of facility utilization, which are absolutely necessary to understand future infrastructure requirements.  The GAO has warned that NNSA does not understand the requirements of the plutonium mission itself.

“The entity which is providing all the data used by Congress and the Nuclear Weapons Council – Los Alamos National Security (LANS), LLC – stands to greatly benefit financially from large construction projects.  LANSs has published data which show that LANS diverts, in some projects, over half of the construction funds provided to support lab overhead, student employment, and other projects around LANL.  How much would be taken from the “module” line item?  The accounting involved is so arcane and unauditable that no one can say, outside of LANS itself.  Very likely no one would ever find out, as NNSA, GAO, DOE, and other government auditors have told us is the case today.  What cannot be audited cannot be controlled.  LANS is an interest-conflicted party and should not play a central role in these decisions.”


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