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NM senators, rep push back at LANL skeptics

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have renewed and elaborated on their criticism of a federal report that raises questions about whether Los Alamos National Laboratory should remain the nation’s site for the manufacture of plutonium cores for nuclear weapons.

They say the study by the National Nuclear Security Administration “shockingly” failed to consider a relatively low-cost facility for making plutonium “pits” at Los Alamos that has been in the planning stages for years, with the support of Congress and the Nuclear Weapons Council.

The letter from U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Rep. Ben Ray Luján also hints that NNSA used specifications for pit production, particularly in regards to requirements for facility square footage, that skewed the report against LANL.

Summary documents about an “analysis of alternatives” by NNSA recently leaked out and say that reaching the military’s pit production goals may be quicker and cheaper at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The NNSA has acknowledged that it is considering two options, one at Los Alamos and another at Savannah River, for further analysis.

No new pits have been made since 2011, when LANL completed the last of 29 for Navy submarine missiles. The most ever made at Los Alamos in a year is 11. But the NNSA is under a congressional mandate to make 80 pits a year by about 2030 for modernization of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and LANL has been gearing up for the work.

Meanwhile, the lab has faced scrutiny for safety lapses, including a recent incident involving plutonium and pit-making.

Plutonium pit work will come with billions of dollars for both construction and operations.

In a Dec. 18 letter to U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Udall, Heinrich and Luján expressed “very serious concerns” about the NNSA report comparing potential pit-making sites.

Their letter notes that in 2014, the Nuclear Weapons Council determined that new, underground “modules,” along with refurbishing the existing plutonium facility at Los Alamos, “would fully meet the nation’s requirements to maintain the nuclear weapons stockpile over a 30-year period.” The modules, which would put different tasks into separate spaces and take on the most high-risk plutonium work, were given an estimated cost of $1.3 billion to $3 billion in 2015.

But the modular approach was “conspicuously absent” from the NNSA’s analysis of alternatives (or AoA), says the congressional members’ letter. Instead, the only LANL option in the analysis was the so-called “big box” approach, with a single, huge building for plutonium work.

An earlier big-box plan for Los Alamos crashed and burned in 2012 after $450 million had already been spent on design and study, as cost estimates that started at $800 million ballooned to as much as $6 billion.

“Shockingly, not only did the AoA fail to analyze the endorsed modular approach which has been in place for years,” says the letter to Perry, but NNSA’s Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation office’s “own review shows that the AoA failed to even take into consideration the costs of repurposing other NNSA facilities,” which would include those at Savannah River.

“In other words, the AoA compared a long-ago abandoned facility plan at LANL and compared it to other NNSA locations as if they were prepared to produce pits today at no additional cost, and then presented its findings to the public as a comparison of current options,” Udall, Heinrich and Luján wrote.

“Making matters worse, such a disruptive relocation of the plutonium mission is likely to introduce new, unpredictable risks to the safety of workers and communities into an already challenging enterprise,” they added.

New pit number

The letter also asks why the analysis used a pit-production capability of 110 pits per year when comparing sites instead of the 80 pits annually that Congress has mandated, a detail that increased the necessary square footage “beyond the Department of Defense’s requirements.”

Savannah River could fill the bill for a huge facility. A 600,000-square-foot mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant has been under construction at Savannah River for years but has been plagued by cost overruns, delays and litigation. The NNSA analysis of pit-making sites did consider the MOX facility, which the DOE has estimated will have cost more than $17 billion when complete.

“Perhaps most concerning,” says the letter from the New Mexico delegation members, “is the fact that the failed AoA effectively wasted several years of time and money that could otherwise have been dedicated to improving the reliability of the nation’s nuclear stockpile and the safety of facilities and operations.”

Udall, Heinrich and Luján closed the letter to Perry with, “We ask for your immediate attention and personal assurance that the serious shortcomings of the AoA will be fully addressed in the comprehensive engineering analysis before making a final selection (for pit-making).”

The NNSA, under Perry as part of the DOE, did not respond to Journal requests for comment.

Critics of NNSA and the Los Alamos lab have maintained for years that no new pits are necessary, with many made in years past still in storage. “It’s a gigantic waste of money,” said Greg Mello of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group.

He said his group also believes there are “fundamental conceptual problems” with LANL’s modular plan, including the susceptibility to earthquake damage of a tunnel that would connect the modules to the existing PF-4 plutonium facility. “It would seem to us that prudent government would be mean establishing the basic capability to make pits, which means establishing safe and secure operations at PF-4, period, which they haven’t done,” said Mello.

But he said he agrees with the senators and Luján in questioning where the NNSA came up with a need to make 100 pits a year. “We don’t know if that’s a more honest portrayal of what the government wants or an expansion of some kind,” he said. Mello said New Mexico’s congressional delegation should demand a “public vetting” of the pit plans.

Report details

The leaked portions of the NNSA report say that facilities for meeting national pit-production goals at LANL would cost $1.9 billion to $7.5 billion, compared to $1.4 billion to $5.4 billion for repurposing Savannah River’s MOX building. Savannah River could make the required number of pits sometime between 2029 and 2036, while Los Alamos couldn’t reach the goal until between 2033 and 2038, the report says.

The analysis may have considered the modular approach at Los Alamos in a first look at site options, but not in the final analysis. It says that 36 of 41 options were “eliminated from further consideration after the team developed floor space estimates and initial cost, schedule and risk assessments.”

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