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Nuclear facilities at Los Alamos: a primer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is coming to Santa Fe Thursday (11/17/2011, pdf of agenda here) to talk about nuclear safety. For background reading, here’s a quick primer on the lab’s key nuclear facilities, complete with their utterly confusing initialisms/acronyms:

Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building (CMR)

Completed in 1952, CMR houses lab space where work with plutonium and other similarly dangerous nuclear materials is done. CMR’s work involves small quantities of the materials, used for analytical chemistry. The building, on the edge of the lab’s main cluster of research buildings, sits atop an earthquake fault, and does not meet modern safety standards. (You can see from the picture the way it’s surrounded by other stuff.) The lab has been working to replace it for more than two decades.

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Plutonium Facility (PF-4)

Built in the 1970s, PF-4 is located at the lab’s Technical Area 55. PF-4 is the main building for plutonium work, including the manufacture of “pits”, the metal cores at the heart of U.S. nuclear weapons. It was built as a research complex, but with the closure of the Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver, PF-4 became the only facility in the United States equipped to make pits. PF-4 also faces seismic problems, but rather than replace it, lab and federal officials are in the midst of upgrades in hopes of preventing radiation release in the case of an earthquake. When the Safety Board comes to Santa Fe Thursday, PF-4 tops the agenda.

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Radiological Laboratory/Utility/Office Building (RLUOB)

Phase one of replacing the old CMR building is the RLUOB, a four-story building adjacent to PF-4 that includes both office space and “light labs”, meaning small quantities of plutonium and other radioactive materials will eventually be used there. RLUOB is built (I had a tour last week when I was up at the lab interviewing folks about seismic issues – the elevators actually talk) but the lab space is not yet in use.

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Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF)

When you hear talk about the proposed plutonium lab proposed for Los Alamos, this is what we mean. It’s purpose is to replace CMR – if it is built. But that’s a big “if”. With a ballooning cost (currently estimated at $4 billion to $6 billion) it has become a potential target for federal budget cutters.

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