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Nuclear Weapons Council Formally Commits to LANL Modular Pu Strategy
Todd Jacobson
NS&D Monitor


The Nuclear Weapons Council has formally committed to build two modular structures to help sustain Los Alamos National Laboratory’s plutonium capabilities, opening the door to freeing up approximately $90 million in funds that had been in limbo as lawmakers pushed for a promise on the modular approach. Nuclear Weapons Council Chairman Frank Kendall and National Nuclear Security Administration chief Frank Klotz made the commitment in a July 25 letter to key Congressional leaders, pledging to complete the modular structures by 2027. Los Alamos has championed the modular approach—which could cost about $2 billion—as a cheaper alternative to the scuttled Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility, but
Congress had been reluctant to agree to reprogram leftover CMRR-NF funds without a firm commitment from the NWC.

The Fiscal Year 2013 and FY 2014 National Defense Authorization Acts prevented the NNSA from spending money on an alternate plutonium strategy without the commitment. “We request your support to use the remaining CMRR funding to begin the first two steps of the plutonium strategy as subprojects within the CMRR project,” Kendall and Klotz wrote. “Your continued support is appreciated, and we look forward to updating Congress on our progress.” With the letter in place, the House Armed Services Committee is expected to give its approval to free up the remaining money.

Pre-Conceptual Design on Modular Structures to Begin in FY 2015

Kendall and Klotz also said the NNSA’s modular approach would “meet the requirements for maintaining the nuclear weapons stockpile over a 30-year period” and “meet the requirements for implementation of a responsive infrastructure, including meeting plutonium pit production requirements.” They said the NNSA will begin work on the modular structures in FY 2015 with
pre-conceptual design activities in preparation for Critical Decision-0. The officials said the strategy is “dependent on timely receipt of congressional appropriations and authorizations as well as the release of funds previously requested for reprogramming” from the CMRR-NF project.

Senate Appropriators Skeptical About Modular Approach

The NNSA requested $35.7 million in FY 2015 to outfit its Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building with equipment that can shoulder some of the load planned for the CMRR-NF facility, and another $3.8 million to begin studying the new modular approach. While Congressional authorizers and appropriators have supported the request, they’ve done so skeptically, most notably with Senate appropriators directing in report language released last week that NNSA thoroughly vet alternatives
for modernizing Los Alamos’s plutonium capabilities before moving forward with the modular approach. It urged the agency to explore options brought up in a February Congressional Research Service report that suggested existing facilities could be used to help the NNSA meet its plutonium capabilities affordably and quickly. “Before proposing the construction of laboratory modules, the Committee believes NNSA must first conduct a realistic and thorough assessment of alternatives
which explores the use of existing facilities across DOE and NNSA labs and sites to meet plutonium mission needs,” the committee said.

If modules are found to be the best approach, the committee said the NNSA should establish a Red Team similar to the group that studied the UPF project to “determine whether NNSA’s preferred option is the most cost effective and time-sensitive.”

McMillan Outlined Lab Needs

Earlier this year, Los Alamos Director Charlie McMillan said the lab needs about $90 million in Fiscal Year 2014, $38 million in FY 2015, and then a steady funding profile of about $85 million a year through 2019 for the plutonium strategy. Lab officials have said the money is key to getting out of the current Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility by 2019. “We need to get the money in that kind of sequence and we need to work very closely with NNSA so we don’t have the process getting in the way," McMillan told NS&D Monitor. "If we can do those things I have high confidence we can meet a 2019 date. If we hiccup anywhere along that it’s now a very tightly wound system, and then I can’t say what I just said. We’re going to be in a position where success is not nearly as likely.”

Phase one of the plan involves modifying the existing Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building to increase the amount of radiological material allowed in the facility, and McMillan said in prepared testimony to Congress that the lab was currently in the process of outfitting RLUOB with equipment that will allow it to take advantage of the increased material allowed in the building. Phase two involves reconfiguring the lab’s Plutonium Facility so that additional space can be devoted to analytical chemistry and materials characterization work, and phase three involves the construction of “modular” facilities to handle either a plutonium
storage vault, a pit processing facility, or a radiological diagnostics suite. "We will need space for these operations after we determine which is least appropriate for inclusion in our existing plutonium facility," McMillan said in his prepared testimony for the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.

He added: “These modest steps should be sufficient to preserve our plutonium capabilities into the future and hopefully avoid some of the pitfalls we have experienced trying to construct very large multipurpose nuclear facilities over several decades. These additions are intended to ‘scale,’ not solve, most of the past acquisition challenges with ‘big box’ nuclear projects and be adaptable for a broad range of possible futures–not just at Los Alamos.”

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