Obama Green Lights LANL’s Controversial Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility

By LOS ALAMOS STUDY GROUP

Proposed site at Los Alamos National Labs for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Nuclear Facility. The facility, if built, will be used in the production of plutonium 'pits,' essential in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratories
Proposed site at Los Alamos National Labs for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Nuclear Facility. The facility, if built, will be used in the production of plutonium ‘pits,’ essential in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory

The President today signed the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (FY2013 NDAA; click here for the text of the Act). The Act is significant for a number of reasons, one of which can be found in section section 3114, pp. 539-541. This section requires construction of a proposed multibillion dollar plutonium laboratory and storage facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF).

Previously, the President had threatened to veto the bill over this and several other provisions, saying:

The Administration strongly objects to section 3111 [later becoming section 3114 as noted], which would require construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility to begin in 2013. The Departments of Defense [DoD] and Energy [DOE] agree that, in light of today’s fiscal environment, CMRR can be deferred for at least five years, and funds reallocated to support higher priority nuclear weapons goals. An interim strategy will be implemented to provide adequate support to plutonium pit manufacturing and storage needs until a long-term solution can be implemented. Further, S. 3254 would require funding for the CMRR in FY 2013 to be taken from other National Nuclear Security Administration [NNSA] priorities, creating undue risks for other parts of the program, including delays to critical infrastructure modernization, underfunding operations of the nuclear complex, and curtailing science, engineering, and key nonproliferation initiatives. Finally, section 3111 [now 3114] specifies an operational date but caps total funding at the low end of the agency estimate, which may not be achievable.  (Statement of Administration Policy, Nov. 29, 2012)

Despite previous objections, today’s Presidential signing statement made no reference to section 3114 or the CMRR-NF.

The CMRR-NF component of this long bill was highlighted in an article today on the Global Security Newswire, which begins, “President Obama on Wednesday signed off on a 14-year deadline for completing a controversial nuclear arms laboratory and storage site, despite a previous push by his administration to postpone the project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.”

The FY2013 NDAA:

  • Defines the CMRR-NF as the project now partially designed and indefinitely deferred;
  • Requires DOE and NNSA to seek assistance from the Naval Facilities Engineering Command with respect to CMRR-NF management, oversight, and design;
  • Authorizes $70 million for CMRR-NF in FY2013, plus any prior-year funds remaining (which are about $120 million);
  • Prevents spending on any plutonium strategy not involving operation of CMRR-NF by 2026; and
  • Requires study by the Deputy NNSA Administrator for Naval Reactors of any alternative (non-CMRR-NF) plutonium strategy, to be submitted to the armed services committees (not NNSA) within 18 months from today.

In addition, the Act:

  • Requires that the building cost no more than $3.7 billion and be in operation no later than 2026; and
  • Requires that NNSA not use any funds authorized for the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) project, Naval Reactors, or Directed Stockpile budget on the CMRR-NF project.

These last two provisions have little legislative content, as: a) there is no way to legislate the future cost or completion date of the project; and b) the use of funds outside specific line items is normally forbidden by existing law anyway (by the Anti-Deficiency Act).

The stated $3.7 billion was the lowest roughly-estimated cost for the project as of late 2010.  The high-end estimate at the time was $5.9 billion.  No more recent estimate is publicly available, although NNSA and DoD have both prepared estimates (which reportedly differ).  All NNSA project costs have risen since 2010.  In 2010, no independent cost estimate for the project had been conducted.  Even today no detailed project baseline (design requirements, cost, and schedule) has been prepared, meaning that all cost estimates at this point are somewhat speculative.  Despite expenditure of ($635 million minus $120 million equals) $515 million on the project to date, many basic design questions remain unresolved.

In reaction, Los Alamos Study Group Director Greg Mello said:

“The election year and ‘fiscal cliff’ phenomena have helped curtail the ability of Congress to learn the issues.  As a result this bill, in these sections, relies heavily on the views of lobbyists such as Bob DeGrasse, the recently-former Majority Counsel for the House Armed Services Committee, who now lobbies for Bechtel National.  Bechtel stands to gain billions of dollars from this single provision.”

Further information can be found in:

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