Pit of Pits: Los Alamos Proposed Plutonium Facility

You may be familiar with the term fund of funds from the world of investments. It refers to a mutual fund that invests in other mutual funds; in the same vein, a fund of hedge funds invests in several different hedge funds. Hold that thought.

Regular readers know that we frequently post about a proposed new facility called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), one of two labs in the United States where nuclear-weapon design work is conducted. On January 18, the independent watchdog POGO (Project On Government Oversight) released a report by by one of its investigators, Peter Stockton, titled “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Energy Department Plans to Waste Billions of Dollars on Unneeded Los Alamos Lab Facility.”

The CMRR-NF replacement facility, they write:

… will take over [the existing Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility's] main functions of housing laboratory space for the research and development of … elements such as plutonium and … will add a vault capable of holding six metric tons of plutonium. CMRR-NF “will operate in an integrated fashion” with LANL’s existing Plutonium Facility 4 … and will free up space [for] PF-4 to manufacture pits.

Nuclear pits are, as the authors write, “the plutonium triggers at the core of nuclear weapons” — in other words, the living breathing heart of the warhead where the chain reaction occurs. The overriding issue of the need for nuclear weapons aside, the problem with the CMRR-NF can be broken down into two — inevitably intertwined — components.

First, the estimated cost of just that one building has ballooned from $375 million to between $3.71 to $5.9 billion. Second –dealing with the issue of nuclear weapons on a relative, rather than absolute level — are more pits needed to maintain the United States nuclear-weapons program? The authors write:

… the need to build an y new pits is aggressively challenged by numerous experts from the nuclear weapons complex. In a 2009 hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development … Philip Coyle, a former associate director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory [cited] the pits already stored at Pantex Plant in Texas as an alternative to the [National Nuclear Security Administration's] supposed need for a new facility to manufacture 80 new pits per year. Pantex stockpiles over 14,000 pits and has the capacity to store up to 20,000 pits [and is] authorized to reuse up to 350 pits per year. [While it] was originally feared that the plutonium in pits would gradually degrade over time. … the independent JASON advisory panel found in 2007 that [the pits] have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years.”

Furthermore (emphasis added):

… to extend the life of the warhead, [the National Nuclear Security Administration] has the Life Extension Program (LEP), which aims to increase the lifetimes of existing weapons by refurbishing and replacing certain components as necessary. [Most of this work] will be finished by the time CMRR-NF is [or would be -- RW] operational in 2023. In addition, as a result of New START and the Nuclear Posture Review [there will be] even fewer warheads [that] will need to go through LEP by the time CMRR-NF is completed. These factors mean that CMRR-NF may be unnecessary.

After all, in a time when the triggers for nuclear war between major powers have been minimized, why must the nuclear-weapons program be awash in nuclear triggers? Between Pantex and Los Alamos, it’s a veritable pit of pits.

Therefore, the authors of the POGO report recommend:

1) The Administration and DOE [Department of Energy] should cancel CMRR-NF and zero out funding for the project in the upcoming budget.

2) If the Administration and DOE fail to act, Congress should cancel funding for CMRR-NF in its next appropriations bill.

3) NNSA should continue using existing facilities, at LANL and elsewhere, in the nuclear weapons complex to meet credible nuclear modernization requirements.

To prevent future projects such as the CMRR-NF:

4) Congress should amend [the] National Defense Authorization Act … to improve the oversight of major cost overruns and schedule delays at the DOE.

5) Congress should require independent cost estimates of major DOE construction projects at an early milestone.

In his latest Los Alamos Study Group bulletin, Greg Mello refers to an article in the Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor for a status update.

… the Administration said it expected to spend $300 million on CMRR-NF in [Fiscal Year] 2012 and FY2013, but Congress had already begun to balk at the price tag, providing just $200 million in FY2012 with explicit instructions prohibiting the start of preliminary construction activities. …. “The eventual demise of CMRR-NF has been inevitable, given its lack of justification and astronomical cost,” said [Mello, whose] organization has parallel lawsuits that contend that NNSA hasn’t fully analyzed alternatives to building CMRR-NF.

As for that “eventual demise,” Mello writes in the LASG bulletin:

Yes, failure of this project has been inevitable sooner or later. … There is a huge difference, however, between “sooner” and “later.” By far the best outcome for all parties would be to end the project now, rather than building up to a bigger fiasco later. As I said [elsewhere],

Assuming the current rumors are true, the main thing now is to stop additional expenditures immediately, mid-year, rather than winding down the project gradually and wasting even more money.

As with our wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the decision may finally be made to wind down, but, along with casualties, untold riches continue to be expended in the process.