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LANL's Proposed Lab On Hold

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
    A proposed billion-dollar Los Alamos plutonium lab appears to be in trouble as a result of rising cost estimates and congressional skepticism.
    The federal government hoped to begin construction next year, but Bush administration officials are now rethinking the project.
    One reason: "increasing cost," National Nuclear Security Administration chief Thomas D'Agostino told members of Congress in a recent hearing. In the last year, preliminary cost estimates have jumped from $837 million to as much as $1.5 billion.
    There is also skepticism about how the project fits into the National Nuclear Security Administration's longer range plans for maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile— plans that could render the project obsolete a decade after it is completed.
    With those concerns in mind, D'Agostino told members of Congress in hearings this spring that he is putting the brakes on the Los Alamos project while his agency reviews its long range options.
    For D'Agostino and the U.S. nuclear weapons establishment, decisions about whether to proceed with the nuclear lab are tied up in a complex debate now under way in Washington about what the future U.S. nuclear arsenal will look like, and how to build and manage it.
    The Bush administration is pushing for development of a new Reliable Replacement Warhead, and a national nuclear production complex to produce it. The complex would include a "consolidated plutonium center"— a single factory and lab site that would take over much of the plutonium work now done at Los Alamos.
    The big new Los Alamos plutonium lab was to be built, beginning next year, a bridge to handle the workload until the consolidated plutonium center is built.
    In a report last year, Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, called building the Los Alamos lab only to replace it within a decade "irrational."
    The National Nuclear Security Administration has gotten the message that Congress might be unwilling to fund both the lab and the factory-lab complex soon after, deputy NNSA chief Marty Schoenbauer said in an interview.
    "That's being rethought," Schoenbauer said.
    Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said he will continue to push for the project, calling it "absolutely necessary."
    "It is needed to support the ongoing plutonium mission," Domenici said in a written statement Friday.
    Greg Mello, a leading arms control activist with the Los Alamos Study Group, disagreed, questioning the need for a large new plutonium complex given questionable need for new plutonium weapons components.
    For Los Alamos, D'Agostino's decision to apply the brakes is the latest twist in a saga going back two decades, as lab officials try to replace what they say is one of their most important but oldest nuclear labs.
    At 550,000 square feet— more than twice the size of a super Wal-Mart— Los Alamos National Laboratory's Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building is the largest building at the nuclear weapons lab. It contains laboratories where scientists analyze plutonium and other similar radioactive materials, primarily those used in the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
    Completed in 1952, it has been near the end of its useful life for a quarter of a century. The first call for replacement came in 1982, according to Los Alamos lab associate director Terry Wallace.
    In the late 1980s, the federal government planned a replacement lab, but as the Cold War ended the project died in the face of uncertainty over the future of the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
    In the mid-1990s, the federal government launched a $175 million upgrade to the aging building. But after spending more than $100 million of that money, nuclear weapons program managers changed course again, deciding to scrap the upgrade and build an entirely new building.
    The new building goes by the cumbersome name of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building Replacement, but everyone involved in the project simply calls it "CMRR."
    Part of the replacement project— an office building and a smaller lab— is already under construction. It is the second phase of the project, the CMRR Nuclear Facility, that D'Agostino has put on hold.
    Over and over, Los Alamos officials have seen the expense of replacing or upgrading the old CMR building lead to repeated delays in dealing with the issue.