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LANL plutonium project called ‘a house of cards’

Changes to accommodate higher levels of plutonium at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building are included in plans to replace the lab’s 1952 plutonium facility. (Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory)

Changes to accommodate higher levels of plutonium at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building are included in plans to replace the lab’s 1952 plutonium facility. (Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory)

SANTA FE, N.M. — The U.S. Government Accountability Office is raising questions about whether a project underway at Los Alamos National Laboratory can meet a mandate to ramp up production of plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons – a key part of the federal government’s effort to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal over the next two decades.

The GAO, in a report released this week, says the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees LANL, has not defined how the multi-billion-dollar plans will achieve the goal established by the Department of Defense and Congress of producing 50 to 80 “pits” – the grapefruit-sized plutonium cores of nuclear weapons – by 2030.

NNSA’s own analysis shows the LANL project “may not support those (production) rates,” says the report by the GAO, a independent agency that works with Congress.

The report notes that officials from NNSA and its parent Department of Energy provided “widely different conclusions” about the project’s pit production capabilities, from 10 pits a year to as many as 30, and that one senior DOE official “was not aware the project was needed to support pit production.”

The report also says NNSA “may have overstated the cost savings” of the latest plan for plutonium work at LANL compared to a 2005 design for a large, new plutonium facility that was first postponed four years ago after cost estimates ballooned from less than $1 billion to $5.8 billion. The “big box” project was formally abandoned in 2014 after $450 million had been spent.

LANL needs to replace its aging Chemistry and Metallurgical Research facility, which has been used for plutonium work since 1952. Because of its aging infrastructure and the fact it sits on a seismic fault line, plans have called for it to have no more plutonium operations by 2019.

Since the original big box Chemistry and Metallurgical Replacement (CMRR) project was scrapped, NNSA came up with a new strategy that calls for making changes to and expanding plutonium capabilities at existing LANL facilities – at a cost of up to $2 billion – and building two nearby underground “modules” to add more high-hazard, high-security lab space, for up to $3 billion.

The GAO report says NNSA’s own cost-saving estimates vary widely and are based on changing numbers. For example, one DOE savings estimate for the current plan put the cost of the abandoned big box proposal at $7 billion, even more than the skyrocketing estimates released publicly that helped lead to its demise.

NNSA also hasn’t factored in that the revised CMRR project “includes less scope and is likely to provide less plutonium analysis” than the prior plan. The new report concludes that any cost savings from the revised plan “has yet to be determined.” And GAO is critical of a lack of “an integrated master schedule” for completion of the work.

NNSA response

NNSA maintains that the GAO just doesn’t understand the purpose of the project to replace the aging plutonium facility.

In a response to the GAO findings, NNSA argued that the report “substantially misinterprets the relationship between the CMRR project and plutonium pit production,” and implies incorrectly “that the driver for the CMRR project and the project’s ultimate success depend on meeting pit production needs.”

NNSA and LANL’s private managing contractor, Los Alamos National Security (LANS), told GAO the project is just supposed to replace the plutonium analysis equipment and capabilities of the aging 1952 facility.

Rebutting, the GAO report notes that one of the primary functions of LANL’s plutonium work “is to support NNSA’s efforts to produce new plutonium pits for life extension programs that are critical to nuclear modernization efforts.”

It adds, “As a result, we continue to believe that it is important for the agency to be clear about how well the CMRR project will support NNSA’s pit production plans.”

NNSA spokeswoman Francie Israeli provided a statement to the Journal this week saying that the agency is concerned “that the report does not reflect the depth and breadth of steps taken in the last two years to improve project management in accordance with the Secretary of Energy’s new policies.”

“As a result of these improvements, NNSA has high confidence in its budget estimates for the CMRR project, so long as it receives consistent predictable funding for the project’s duration. As noted in the report, NNSA divided the CMRR project into discrete subprojects to facilitate delivery of specific work scope in shorter timeframes and within NNSA budget projections.”

Israeli’s statement also reiterated NNSA’s contention that the GAO auditors misunderstood the CMRR project

“The purpose of the CMRR project is to provide the analytical chemistry and materials characterization capabilities needed to support the full set of NNSA plutonium program needs,” the statement added. “The equipment being installed replicates current capabilities in the existing CMR facility. The equipment does not manufacture pits, and it is not feasible within the scope of the CMRR project to associate the performance of an individual piece of analytical laboratory equipment with a pit production requirement, as the report suggests.”

The NNSA statement concludes, “The equipment associated with the CMRR project will support Los Alamos plutonium program needs for at least the next decade.”

Lab critics weigh in

Lab critics – who noted that the GAO report was released on Aug. 9, the 71st anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki near the end for World War II – have found plenty of fodder in the GAO report.

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group research and advocacy organization said the report “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.” He said that, after the big-box plan “fiasco,” “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.”

Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said the GAO report reveals the CMRR project to be “a house of cards.”

He said the DOE, because of cost overruns and busted deadlines, has been on GAO’s “high-risk list” watch list for the past 25 years. “I assert this is more of the same,” he said.

Coghlan noted that the report makes it clear that NNSA intends to upgrade the existing Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building that opened in 2014 to a nuclear facility that can accommodate additional plutonium and giving it a “Hazard Category 3” designation – the rating for a nuclear facility where the risks are “for only local significant consequences,” as opposed to bigger risks of off-site or more widespread on-campus contamination.

Coghlan said there’s been no environmental impact statement on that change and points to findings in the report that LANL has already started acquiring glove-boxes for the rad-lab that would have to be changed out and that the ventilation system also would need to be improved.

“This is the first time ever the NNSA, a troubled agency to begin with, has taken a radiological lab and tried to make it into a Hazard Category 3,” he said.