The Front Lines of Disarmament: Blocking a Nuclear Facility Six Times the Cost of the Manhattan Project

That is, six times the cost of the division of the Manhattan Project (to develop nuclear weapons during World War II) that was based in New Mexico. The heart of it — what later became known as Los Alamos National Laboratory. Odds are, with the Cold War consigned to history, you couldn’t have imagined that a nuclear weapons facility of such immensity was still on the table.

Greg Mello is the executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG), which, since 1989, has been spearheading nuclear disarmament in New Mexico, and, consequently, the nation. Since 1999, it has concentrated on halting or, failing that, downsizing a building project at Los Alamos called the Chemical and Metallurgical Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR). The intended function of this facility is to increase the capacity to produce new plutonium pits. The actual site of the nuclear fission, they’re the beating heart of the warhead.

The CMRR, writes Greg Mello in a press release, “was marketed to Congress as a $350 million building [but] has grown to an estimated $4.3 billion.” The “per square foot of useful space has grown to more than 100 times what [Los Alamos's] existing plutonium facility cost in 1978, in constant dollars [adjusted for inflation].”

How, you’re probably wondering, in these economic times, could we be embarking on an endeavor more vast than the Manhattan Project? If we were, shouldn’t it be, instead of weapons, a flagship form of alternative energy?

Cognitive dissonance on our part aside, over the years, LASG devised a plan with the help of a law firm. Under the National Environmental Policy Act they filed suit to stop all funding for and work on the CMRR until a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was prepared. Nor is this just a legal maneuver: a new EIS is sorely needed.

“The Los Alamos Study Group,” reads the the original suit for an EIS (apologies for yet more abbreviations), “alleges that the DOE [Department of Energy] and NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] have violated the National Environmental Protection Act [NEPA] by preparing to construct [the CMRR] without an applicable [EIS]. . . . NNSA wrote an EIS for an earlier version of the facility in 2003. At that time the facility was to cost one-tenth as much, use one-fiftieth as much concrete, take one-fourth the time to build, and entail far fewer environmental impacts.

In fact:

Many of the project’s difficulties can be traced to just a few major causes. . . . Changes . . . helped drive the proposed facility underground [not figuratively, literally] — into a thick stratum of loose volcanic ash which cannot support it. [Especially since the] magnitude and frequency of earthquakes expected at the site has increased dramatically, requiring much heavier construction.

Said construction would entail (emphasis added):

  • A new excavated depth of 125 feet . . . and replacement of an entire geologic stratum beneath the building with 225,000 cubic yards of concrete and grout;
  • . . . 29-fold increases . . . in structural concrete and steel;
  • Greatly increased total acreage, sprawling over many technical areas at LANL;
  • Anywhere from 20,000 to 110,000 heavy truck trips to and from Los Alamos County;
  • A decade-long construction schedule, up from less than 3 years

Bear in mind that the United States already has “approximately 24,000 . . . tested, stockpiled pits for each delivery system” and “these pits last essentially forever.” LASG “believes there are many simpler, cheaper, faster, less risky, and less environmentally damaging alternatives to [the CMRR, which] let alone any other . . . is poorly justified from the nuclear deterrence perspective.”

Has LASG’s strategy proven effective? On November 15 Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor reported (emphasis added):

The National Nuclear Security Administration has suspended all procurements related to the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility while the agency updates the environmental analysis of the multi-billion-dollar facility. . . . The move . . . could jeopardize the laboratory’s plans to complete work . . . for the project in 2011. . . .

Spurred in part by a push from New Mexico nuclear watchdogs including an ongoing lawsuit by the Los Alamo Study Group — the NNSA announced in September that it was preparing a Supplemental [EIS] for the CMRR. [Said Supplemental] hasn’t satisfied the Los Alamos Study Group, which is still pursuing its lawsuit and pushing for the NNSA to redo the EIS rather than simply update it. . . . But the [NNSA] study will also include an examination of the alternative of not building the project at all, but rather modifying the existing Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building.

The first highlighted phrase shows the effect that LASG is having on the NNSA. The second shows how pragmatic LASG’s tactics are. Although total disarmament is its ultimate goal, it keeps its eye on the first line of defense: curbing expansion and waste at Los Alamos.

“The simple hallmark of good policy, is to spend less money”

I contacted Greg Mello and asked him to expand on LASG’s strategy. To begin with, he states in one of his press releases:

CMRR . . . should not be desirable to weapons administrators because there are much better, less managerially risky, cheaper, and safer facility options for preserving U.S. nuclear weapons. [And we] have already developed a set of reasonable alternatives to this facility and anticipate working productively with the review team and with Congress.

I just wanted to hear Mello confirm in his own words that the underlying strategy behind the above statements is to walk the world back toward disarmament by working with the nuclear-industrial complex one step at a time. His reply, with my annotation and emphases, follows. Excuse the prejudicial statement, but let’s hope that you find it as brimming with insight as I did.

Consider the matter from two perspectives: a) values, or timelessness, or eternity if you want to put it that way, or an ideal; and b) historical process, management reality, political decisions today, or realpolitik. [Most of our work] addresses both. We have to.

If we express only absolutist “positions” . . . we will play into the hands of the “antinuclear nuclearists,”* which is a militarist strategy designed in part to emphasize, or capitalize upon, an absence of realpolitik. We will be easily manipulated.

*Anti-nuclear nuclearism, as LASG defines it, is “a foreign and military policy that relies upon overwhelming U.S. power, including the nuclear arsenal, but makes rhetorical and even some substantive commitments to disarmament, however vaguely defined.” Mello continues.

I think we must try to place ourselves in the position of those in government who make real decisions, and offer steps . . . to embody our values. . . . . We are not more pure than they are. . . . . They have a job to do and we have to help them or we are not doing our job. . . .

At present, effective steps toward disarmament and effective steps toward more effective management of the nuclear enterprise can be the same. How? . . . NNSA believes it must modernize the arsenal, replace old weapons with newly-designed ones, and provide the capability for large-scale manufacturing. It is these goals which drive about one-third to half the existing budget, and all the budget increases proposed by Obama and demanded by Republicans. Wiping out these goals would wipe about about 60% of Los Alamos and most of Livermore. Sandia would be affected much less, and the plants much less still.

Wiping out all this spending would bring us toward rationality overall and within NNSA. We would [still] be dealing with an abusive, violent relative, to be sure, but he would not also be drunk.

Mello provides more little-known insights into the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Officially, NNSA has a goal of nuclear disarmament, since the [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] was signed and entered into force. . . . It also has a goal of nuclear weapons sustainment. [Significantly, though, it] does not yet quite have a goal of modernization, but is sidling there. NNSA ignores the disarmament side of its mission. It could decrease the dissonance by construing its [supposed] deterrence goal [even] in a conservative manner. That would help disarmament a lot.

We find that all parties who want to understand us (as opposed to those who seek to harm us, which are unreachable anyway), from the hard-core abolitionists, of which we are one, to active weapons managers, understand all this pretty well and respect our attempt to reconcile God and man as it were.

The golden road right now, the simple hallmark of good policy, is to spend less money. This is almost an absolute good, as I see it. Money spent equals the value of nuclear weapons in society, mas o minus. The chief distinguishing characteristic of the co-opted is that they want to build up in order to build down. They want to build up the [Nevada Test site] budget or the Pantex [nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly plant] budget in order to increase the rate of dismantlement, for example.

Wrong. Dismantlement eats into [life extension programs], at present, which is just fine. That’s how it should be. It’s a real tradeoff. Why decrease the pressure on NNSA to choose? They want to build new factories in New Mexico, increasing the budget “in the short run,” while there are perfectly good facilities elsewhere. Wrong. The Weapons Activities budget is far too big and should decrease monotonically. . . .

What is real is effectively symbolic. What is merely symbolic is not real. (A dictum of ours this year.)

So who is the audience, you will ask? That has to sort itself out. The masses are powerless, uninterested, and disengaged, so — not them.

Politically, I think we must all recognize that we cannot push what we ourselves need to do onto some posited others who will not ever act politically in any meaningful way, just a sort of “pretend” activity aimed at the next foundation grant, etc. There is a huge difference between reaching to others politically, for actual, effective political action, and reaching to others for mere legitimization of an elite perspective, career, or institution.

Which, in the end, is why LASG has demonstrated proven effectiveness — as opposed to impotence on the part of certain disarmament organizations to which he alludes in the preceding paragraph.

In LASG’s November 23 press release, Mello describes the cost and scale of the CMRR as “a bellwether for our society. At those unprecedented prices something — our society or the project — has to break. . . . That’s part of the point. The folks planning this thing at LANL know perfectly well the sorry state of federal finance. Nevertheless they are bending every effort to make sure the federal government is fully vested in this project before the full crisis hits. Their primary consideration is to make sure they, and the rest of nation’s nuclear establishment, end up on top. Social needs, renewable energy, avoiding climate catastrophe, and in final analysis human survival — all these are expendable goals, just like they have always been in the nuclear bomb business.”