Emerging Tech

U.S. Nuclear Lab Ready to Shelve Costly Facility Plan

The Los Alamos National Laboratory is proposing to shelve plans to build an expensive new plutonium research facility and instead permanently parcel out work to an array of smaller buildings, the institution’s director said on Thursday.

“I’m concerned that in the current fiscal crisis, it may no longer be practical to plan and build very large-scale nuclear facilities,” Charles McMillan, who heads the New Mexico research site, said at a three-day conference on nuclear deterrence in Arlington, Va. “A new path forward is needed.”

A study team at Los Alamos has suggested scrapping plans to construct a $6 billion Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement plant in favor of replacing the nuclear facility’s intended functions with a more attainable constellation of structures, he said.

The new approach would involve a combination of new construction -- albeit at a more modest price -- along with “repurposing” some existing sites, McMillan told the conference audience.

The future CMRR facility was to help ensure that new and existing nuclear-weapon cores would function in an atomic blast, if necessary, despite a decades-long moratorium on underground explosive testing.

Early last year, the Obama administration announced that it intended to save $1.8 billion over the next five years by delaying construction of the new CMRR nuclear lab for a half-decade. The site had been expected to be up and operating by 2024, but the budget move delayed those plans indefinitely.

Now it appears that temporary workarounds for meeting near-term plutonium “pit” research needs could be altered slightly to become a permanent alternative to designs for the ambitious complex.

“This means the new nuclear facility, as it was originally designed, is dead,” Stephen Young, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Global Security Newswire after hearing the laboratory director’s comments. “There may be a new building, but it won't be that big, expensive box.”

“I challenged the team at Los Alamos to explore alternatives that would provide the capabilities that CMRR represented, but to do that in ways that would be simpler,” McMillan said in prepared remarks. “Based on the work that they’ve done over the last year, I believe we should look at designing and building small, individual facilities to meet specific tasks for supporting the [nuclear weapons] stockpile.”

The Los Alamos chief did not elaborate on timing or say how much his backup plan would cost. The Albuquerque Journal reported last August, though, that the alternative concept might require$800 million over the next 10 years.

The “Plan B” project could include converting a recently constructed CMRR radiological laboratory and office building into a site capable of nuclear research, at a cost of $186 million, according to Greg Mello of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group. That would effectively double the radiation facility’s original construction price tag.

The Los Alamos proposal also would include a $120 million tunnel to link the repurposed building to the PF-4 site, where plutonium pits are produced, the New Mexico-based critic said in an August analysis.

In describing the substitute proposal in broad terms this week, McMillan said no final determination had yet been made on how to proceed.

“At some level, it’s not for me to say whether CMRR as a design will ever happen. That’s going to be a governmental decision,” he said in response to an audience question. “What we have been working to do is to provide the government with options, to provide the capabilities that we have planned for CMRR at smaller facilities, as well as reusing existing facilities.”

McMillan said the earlier plan for consolidating plutonium work at a single CMRR facility had seemed attractive, but research for the nuclear arsenal could be accomplished more quickly and affordably under the alternative outline.

Last year, hundreds of millions of dollars were cut out of nuclear infrastructure budgets and additional reductions are widely anticipated in the future. More draconian budget cuts could materialize as early as next week in the form of the budget sequester, which experts say would make big federal construction projects almost unthinkable.

Congressional Republicans in 2012 pushed back against the Obama plan to delay building the CMRR nuclear facility. The president early this year signed into law a fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill that demands the laboratory building be constructed and operating by the end of 2026.

Young speculated that political and fiscal realities will ultimately trump last month’s law, and the provisions demanding CMRR construction will be reversed.

“Congress will, in the end, support this decision,” he said. “The unified position of the administration and the labs, combined with budget pressures, make it almost inevitable.”

This alternative became feasible mostly because of changes in policy for the nuclear weapons enterprise over the past year, McMillan said. For example, the existing CMRR radiological laboratory is now permitted to store 26 grams of fissile material, more than quadrupling its prior limitation at 6 grams.

“Those kinds of policy changes lead to different options,” he said. “We’re proposing a set of similar changes that could then lead to different ways to use space within existing facilities, as well as the smaller [new] facilities, to provide the capability.”

The “interim strategy” devised by the nuclear complex for plutonium core analysis uses facilities not only at Los Alamos but “across the enterprise,” to include buildings at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, McMillan noted. A more permanent approach would similarly “take advantage of the infrastructure that’s already there,” he said.

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// April 19