WASHINGTON – U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu offered scant hope for a stalled plutonium project at Los Alamos National Laboratory on Thursday, but he did offer some encouragement for those who want to store additional nuclear waste near Carlsbad.
Chu told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that the Department of Energy decided to abandon – at least for now – a planned LANL plutonium lab because of budget constraints. However, he said design work at the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility will continue until it is 90 percent complete.
“That’s very prudent because for a number of reasons, before you start construction it is best to have most of it designed,” Chu said at the hearing to examine President Barack Obama’s 2013 DOE budget.
Chu said the LANL facility – aimed at helping to preserve America’s aging nuclear stockpile – is too expensive to finish. The administration is shifting emphasis to a plant in Tennessee instead.
“Because of the budget constraints … we have to look at all the other projects and we felt we could not simply start CMRR and the Uranium Processing Facility at Oak Ridge,” Chu said. “We felt there was more compelling reason to begin with that (Oak Ridge).”
National Nuclear Security Administration chief Tom D’Agostino suggested this week that one option for LANL might be to build a single new nuclear building at Los Alamos in the future that would take the place of both CMRR and the lab’s 1970s-era Plutonium Facility, known as PF-4.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who chairs the committee, told the Journal on Thursday that he is seeking more answers from Chu about the fate of the Los Alamos project. He said Chu dodged his questions at Thursday’s hearing. But Bingaman also said it is too soon to simply condemn the DOE for making the CMRR decision.
“The truth is we don’t know at this point whether there is a case to be made that they are making a mistake here,” Bingaman said. “Clearly, the projected cost of this facility has grown enormously, and I’m sure that’s one reason they’ve decided not to go forward with it at this point.”
Meanwhile, Chu praised the Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad during the hearing. Responding to a question from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., about possibly storing military nuclear waste at WIPP, Chu said WIPP is an example of a facility that might be able to house such waste. But he cautioned that a decision would need to be prefaced by extensive environmental and geologic studies.
“One would need to do some studies to make sure that would be safe for high level waste,” Chu said. “This is a success story that’s been there and operating for about a dozen years. There have been no incidents and local people feel confident we’re running this in a very safe way and its good for the local economy and the state of New Mexico.”
Some residents of southeastern New Mexico, including some local officials, have suggested WIPP be considered for additional waste. The facility currently houses low-level transuranic waste.
Michael Coleman reported from Washington and John Fleck reported from Albuquerque.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal