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"Forget the Rest" blog


For immediate release August 10, 2016

Congressional auditors flay Los Alamos plutonium plans

Multibillion-dollar plans found to be lacking clear purpose, coherence, credibility

Costs, effectiveness, risks uncertain; no schedule beyond near-term;
no alternatives studied

Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200 or 505-577-8563,

ALBUQUERQUE – Yesterday the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a scathing 65-page critique of plans prepared over the past four years by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), its contractor Los Alamos National Security (LANS), and the Department of Energy (DOE), for what DOE currently estimates will be $6 billion (B) in plutonium-related construction at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).[1]

The central purpose of this construction is to increase LANL’s capacity to manufacture plutonium warhead cores (“pits”).
Defense authorization bills and an interagency coordinating committee (the Nuclear Weapons Council, NWC) have variously required NNSA to increase LANL’s capacity to the range of “50-80” pits per year (ppy) by 2027 (for a 90-day demonstration period only), or by 2029 (if the 2027 deadline proves difficult or is found to be unnecessary), or, as provided in other legislation, by 2030.[2] ,[3]

Since 2006, when LANS assumed management at LANL, NNSA’s strategy for plutonium processing and production investment at LANL has been largely devised (and revised) by LANS, given NNSA’s limited staffing and lack of independent expertise.

GAO confined its audit narrowly to the coherence, likely effectiveness, and estimated cost of the two largest elements of NNSA’s (which is mostly LANS’) current plutonium strategy at LANL.

The first of these is the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) project. The CMRR project has evolved from two subprojects in 2003, to three in 2004, five in 2015, and seven in 2016. The largest of these – the CMRR Nuclear Facility – was cancelled.[4] ,[5]

GAO is also critical of NNSA’s plans for underground plutonium processing “modules” at LANL – the so-called Plutonium Modular Approach (PMA) – a project which has not yet been formally submitted to Congress for funding.[6]

GAO’s analysis did not include ancillary construction and capital equipment installation (underway, planned, and/or linked) such as new facilities for liquid and solid wastes, utility upgrades, security perimeter changes, seismic and safety upgrades of the existing plutonium building (PF-4), and equipment upgrades in PF-4 and supporting facilities (e.g. PF-3).

Paraphrasing, GAO found that:

  • NNSA has no specified functional capacity or parameters for the CMRR project;

  • NNSA and DOE officials are collectively unsure, and have drawn quite different conclusions about, whether the CMRR project will provide the required analytical services to support 10, 30, or perhaps the 50-80 ppy as required by legislation, or whether the CMRR project is designed to support pit production at all;

  • NNSA and LANS are (or claim to be) confused about whether the CMRR project is being designed to support pit production, as opposed to simply replacing capabilities currently resident in the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) building;

  • Despite this uncertainty, as well as major uncertainties about schedule, cost, scope, and overall feasibility, NNSA has no “Plan B”;

  • Despite having no functional parameters for the CMRR project, NNSA is trying to increase the project’s pit production support capacity by a) decreasing the size of analytical samples, with unknown prospects for success, and b) by converting RLUOB, which was designed and built as a Radiological Laboratory, to a Nuclear Facility [at an estimated cost of $365 M];

  • NNSA does not have a complete scope, cost estimate, or master schedule for its plutonium construction plans at LANL – or, apparently, any way of assessing what that complete scope might be;

  • NNSA inappropriately wrote a “mission need” document in 2015 in such a manner as to predetermine the “need” for a specific multibillion-dollar construction project at LANL, namely two or more underground plutonium production “modules;”

  • For years, NNSA assumed that LANL’s Pu-238 processing and production work could be moved into one or more underground modules at LANL, without ever discussing this with the program in question, or incorporating their input into NNSA’s “mission need;”

  • NNSA is not sure whether the CMRR project will be able to provide analytical services for other LANL programs in addition to pit production, or what those analytical requirements (involving specialized, dedicated equipment) and capacity might be, or what scale those programs will have (an issue especially for plutonium disposition, a potentially large program at LANL), or in some cases (Pu-238) whether these programs will even remain resident at LANL;  

  • NNSA and LANS are now unsure whether they will be able to vacate the unsafe CMR building by 2019, as they have long promised [having previously promised, starting in 2000 when the CMRR project was conceived, to vacate CMR by 2010]; known risks could keep the CMR operating for as long as two years past 2010 or else pause most plutonium analytical chemistry at LANL;

  • NNSA is not sure what LANL’s plutonium storage requirements will be, or whether a new vault should be built at LANL (a vault is not currently included in the CMRR project) – or whether, as LANS suggests, the Pantex plant can function as a plutonium storage site for LANL; it is unclear whether Pantex, which has no facilities for handling non-pit plutonium, has been asked about this;

  • As with CMRR, NNSA did not identify “any” performance parameters for its proposed underground production modules; NNSA has not even specified what program needs these multibillion dollar facilities would satisfy;

  • NNSA justifies the module project in part by claiming it will somehow “extend the life” of the existing main plutonium facility;

  • NNSA presented “cost savings” from the CMRR project (as currently revised) as “$4 B” (this, to DOE’s acquisition advisory board), and the next day as “$2 B” (to the Deputy Secretary of Energy), an inexplicable difference; in both these cases and others NNSA omits the cost of an as-yet-undetermined number of underground modules [which NNSA estimates will cost as much as $3 B, without specifying how many], along with omitting NNSA’s planned 12,800 square foot tunnel system to reach the modules, a new waste staging area, and possibly also a new plutonium vault;

  • NNSA’s CMRR project schedule includes work amounting just 7% of the remaining project cost;

  • NNSA has not adequately analyzed schedule risk in the CMRR project;

  • NNSA’s cost estimates for the CMRR project are neither accurate or credible; no true sensitivity analysis has been conducted and no independent cost estimate has been prepared; and

  • In all of this, NNSA violates fundamental tenets of its own project management directives, a pattern which has produced project down-scoping or failure and/or large cost and schedule overruns in NNSA’s recent past – including within the CMRR project itself.

This GAO report, being an audit of these two NNSA’s projects as they are being pursued now, nowhere mentions the work of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) on this topic. CRS, in a series of reports spanning two years, advised Congress and DOE that there were a number of promising lower-risk, less costly alternatives for meeting the legislated pit production requirement.

Study Group director Greg Mello:

“This report describes two multibillion-dollar projects – one underway, one pending – which are being pursued in the absence of clear or consistent objectives. GAO reveals that even senior DOE and NNSA officials have no clear idea of why these huge, complex projects are being built, what precise purposes they will serve, what scope they involve and how long they will continue, what they will ultimately cost, or whether they will meet the goals under which they have been sold.

“Given what GAO has found, DOE might as well not have project management rules. It certainly has not followed them here. After the painful fiasco of CMRR-NF, Congress mostly looked away. NNSA promised Congress a better and cheaper plan. Having given the reins to LANS and to the loudest ideologues on the Hill, that hasn’t happened.

“The root problems for NNSA in this matter are, first of all, there is no need to make new pits at all in order to maintain each and every U.S. nuclear weapon for decades to come. Second, NNSA cannot depend on LANS for competent and objective analysis, let alone good management of LANL’s existing facilities and operations. Third, NNSA needs to examine the extent to which it is substituting ideology for thought.

“None of the so-called ‘analyses’ that support these dubious plans have ever seen the light of day. They have been assembled under cover of darkness and kept there. As we see in this report, NNSA and DOE have now succeeded in confusing even themselves.

“Sound management has taken third or fourth place in this program because it is driven, first and foremost, by powerful ideological tenets which no one involved can question and expect to keep their job. That environment needs to change. This is followed in importance by contractor greed, which is interwoven with congressional pork barrel politics. Simply put, these two projects are the ugly offspring of an out-of-control military-industrial-congressional complex.

“Senators Udall and Heinrich are a major part of the problem. They have expressed their slavish support for this particular program on many occasions. They have abundantly proven their willingness and ability to intervene on behalf of their nuclear laboratory clients. They provide no independent critical thought that we can see.

“Obviously LANS has a conflict of interest, in that it will receive billions of dollars for these projects, which LANS itself largely specifies. Less obviously, LANS is able to rake off a great deal – we believe more than half – of each project’s funding for its own general administration and overhead, providing billions in audit-proof money.

“Pit production enables new warheads, which means tens of billions in new work across the weapons complex for other corporate subsidiaries, partnerships, and other cartel members. Pit production helps support hundreds of billions of dollars in planned delivery system acquisition. More broadly, it plays a role in maintaining the threat environment that supports military spending as a whole.

“What is to be done, then? NNSA needs to go back to the drawing board, starting with the realization that there is no need for new pits. At the same time NNSA needs to commit all funds necessary to make LANL’s main plutonium facility a much safer building. With the possible exception of the strongly-built Wing 9 (currently working on projects NNSA thinks important but we do not), the flagrantly-unsafe CMR should be closed right now. Within the above parameters, a new analysis of alternatives can begin, followed by a new environmental impact statement for any new construction.

“More fundamentally, the U.S. does not need a nuclear arsenal of the present scale and variety to deter a nuclear attack, nor a weapons complex sized for a new Cold War.

“Deeper still, nuclear weapons are obscene, illegitimate, and world-ending. Each pit goes into a warhead that can kill a million people or more. Seventy-one years ago yesterday, a plutonium bomb destroyed 70,000 or more people in Nagasaki. Today’s warheads are far larger.

“NNSA won’t acknowledge the fact, but the absurdity of our present deployments and the immorality of nuclear weapons, together with the toxicity and other properties of plutonium, create management problems no agency can solve. The answer lies in cooperation, not threat. We need that cooperation to address the existential problems we face. Our present threat postures will doom us, if we continue them, with or without nuclear war.”


[1] LANL Plutonium Modular Approach CD-0 Approved,Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor, Dec 4, 2015; DOE Congressional Budget Request for FY2017, Vol. 1, pp. 347-377 (printed pages). See also Expansion of Los Alamos Plutonium Warhead “Pit” Factory Eyed, LASG Fact Sheet, Jun 2016.

[2] See GAO, this report. See also John Medalia’s compilation of pit production requirements at
The origin of this legislated pit production capacity largely lies in estimates made by LANS regarding LANL’s capacity after completion of the $6+ billion (B) Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF). See pp. 67-71 in Medalia, Congressional Research Service, “U.S. Nuclear Weapon “Pit” Production Options for Congress,” collected with subsequent studies at CMRR-NF was halted for a year, then indefinitely postponed, and finally cancelled, subsequent to litigation by the Los Alamos Study Group under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). See also January 16, 2014 Assessment of Nuclear Weapon Pit Production Requirements, letter and report from Sec. Def. Chuck Hagel to House Armed Services Committee Chairman McKeon, previously unpublished. Importantly, the 2027 legislative deadline for a 90-day “demonstration” of 50-80 ppy advances by four years the DoD request in the Hagel letter.

[3] Extensive surveillance and supporting research by DOE’s laboratories, which has been independently validated, have shown that no U.S. nuclear warhead or bomb will require new pits for decades to come, far beyond today’s planning horizons. New-made pits are “needed” (but not before the 2030s) solely for one proposed new warhead, a so-called “Interoperable Warhead” (IW-1), to be produced starting in 2030 in two variants, one for Air Force ballistic missiles and the other for the Navy’s. See NNSA, The Navy’s two warheads – one being renewed and upgraded now, the other to be upgraded and renewed beginning in 2019 – will last through the 2030s. The Navy therefore has no interest in IW-1 at this time. The future of IW-1 – and with it, NNSA’s pit production requirement – is highly uncertain. See “Nuclear Weapons Council Debating Expanding Scope of W88 Alt 370,” Todd Jacobson, Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor, 6/20/2014. The NWC accepted the Navy proposal and subsequent planning documents reflect this. For example, in DOE Congressional Budget Request (CBR) for FY2016, Vol. 1, at p. 94: “NNSA, based on revised NWC guidance, has deferred this program [IW-1] to FY 2020 with a new projected FPU [First Production Unit] in FY 2030…Based on information provided by Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in 2014, the NWC decided to replace the Conventional High Explosives (hereafter referred to as CHE Refresh) on the W88-0. CHE Refresh will leverage ALT 370 tests to maximum extent possible to minimize costs, reduce the logistical impact on the Department of the Navy, and [provide a] FPU coincident with the ALT 370.” The JASON review of IW-1 was rather cool.

[4] These are calendar years, in which budget requests were made for the following fiscal years. See NNSA congressional budget requests, compiled here. The most recent CMRR Project Data Sheet can be found at DOE Congressional Budget Request for FY2017, Vol. 1, pp. 347-377 (printed pages). Further information can be found in our web page for the revised CMRR project and the Plutonium Modular Approach, and in our CMRR project archive and their linked pages.

[5] The first CMRR subproject, the Radiological Laboratory, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB), was at one time (2001) estimated to be the smaller part of a $375 M overall CMRR project, i.e. a circa $100 million (M) project, if not less. The RLUOB building was “completed” in 2010 (without internal equipment) for a total cost of $199 M, and was again “completed” in 2013, this time including equipment costing an additional $197 M. RLUOB is now a $1.44 billion (B) project – by far the most expensive construction project in the history of New Mexico, even though the building itself, which is now partially occupied, may not change much or even change at all, in a project that is supposed to be completed in 2024.

[6] NNSA sought FY2016 funding for PMA but was rebuffed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which demanded instead the Analysis of Alternatives (AoA), the predetermined nature of which GAO critiques in this study. NNSA signed Critical Decision Zero (CD-0) for PMA in November 2015.

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