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A fresh approach to Los Alamos’ plutonium problem

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Back in 1983, the federal government decided that its old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building at Los Alamos, where plutonium work is done, was aging beyond its safe and useful life and needed to be replaced.

We’re still waiting.

“Long-term planning,” Congressional Research Service analyst Jonathan Medalia concludes in a useful new report on the nation’s plutonium options, “is difficult for all parties concerned.”

With the problem unsolved and yet another planning effort now underway, Medalia’s new 90-page analysis is a helpful guide to the problem Los Alamos and the nation face in dealing with their needs for plutonium infrastructure, and the options we have.

Among them, Medalia concludes, are options that meet the nation’s nuclear weapons plutonium needs “at relatively modest cost, in a relatively short time, with no new buildings, and with minimal environmental impact.” He may be shining a light down a path out of this long-standing mess.

Medalia frames the issue with two critical questions: How much plutonium infrastructure do we really need to be prepared to manufacture new plutonium “pits,” the cores of U.S. nuclear weapons? Could those needs be met using existing facilities rather than building the sort of multibillion-dollar new buildings that have remained fiscally out of reach these many years?

Scientifically fascinating but devilishly dangerous, plutonium is the dense, lead-like metal at the heart of modern thermonuclear bombs. Its scientific complexity and its radioactive risk have for decades complicated the nuclear weaponeers’ task of using and managing it.

The complexity requires extensive lab space to accompany its use in U.S. nuclear weapons. Building facilities robust enough to protect against the radioactive danger makes such lab space extraordinarily expensive – too expensive so far, it seems, for the federal government to carry out any of the increasingly costly incarnations of the CMR replacement idea first conceived more than three decades ago.

But how much plutonium infrastructure do we actually need?

Doing nothing, Medalia argues, “entails costs and risks.” A small cadre of Los Alamos workers continues to spend its days working with dangerously radioactive plutonium in a building an independent 2009 review called “genuinely decrepit.”

“Keeping a 1950s-era building open while options are explored,” Medalia writes, “exposes workers to a relatively high risk of death in an earthquake.”

But there are other options, he writes, that could alleviate that risk without the seemingly intractable problem of constructing entirely new buildings.

Among them, according to Medalia, is the option of moving some of the work that now so clogs Los Alamos National Laboratory’s plutonium-certified floor space to other nuclear facilities around the country, including the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, Idaho National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore in California.

Existing buildings at Los Alamos, especially the recently built Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building, could be modified to handle more of the plutonium work that would otherwise fill any new building or buildings. Importantly, Medalia writes, the rules could be changed to allow more plutonium in the newly built radiological laboratory.

Medalia also evaluates more traditional options, including a number of proposals to construct large new buildings. But perhaps more important than the specific options Medalia outlines is the process he suggests.

Each of the failed attempts to replace the CMR building began as a proposal from the lab and federal government, generally to construct a new building, delivered largely whole to Congress. Congress says “yes” or “no” (but usually “yes”), the project proceeds, costs rise above original estimates, unforeseen problems emerge, and the project dies.

Medalia suggests a different approach. Rather than evaluating the administration’s chosen option and approving or denying it, Medalia suggests a more open-ended approach. Congress should order and fund studies on the viability of a range of options, especially those that could proceed without building new buildings, he argues. Especially important, he argues, is a clearheaded analysis of whether overzealous safety requirements in new buildings is driving up the cost of new nuclear facilities so much that we end up stuck with even worse safety problems because workers can’t move out of old buildings.

Medalia’s study comes as Congress and the Obama administration are about to launch a new round of discussions about the issue. The administration’s fiscal 2015 budget request, to be rolled out over the next week, is expected to request new money to work on the problem. How that spending is discussed in the coming year will be interesting to watch.

Read Medalia’s full report, “U.S. Nuclear Weapon ‘Pit’ Production Options for Congress,” here.

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or jfleck@abqjournal.com. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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U.S. plutonium options: the Congressional Research Service report

Congressional Research Service analyst Jonathan Medalia has completed a useful new report on the future of plutonium infrastructure in the...

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