By STEPHANIE HILLER
Long ago, in January 1999, the Department of Energy stated in an Environmental Impact Statement that a new pit-production facility in Los Alamos was not needed, according to a 2005 article by Frank von Hippel, Princeton Professor of Physics:
In 1999, when the Energy Department completed its previous comparison of the alternatives of expanding the capacity of TA-55 or constructing a new pit-production facility, it concluded that “the time required to build and start up such a [new] facility is extensive. There are no programmatic, environmental, or other advantages.
Has the situation changed since 1999, asked von Hippel, adding that if anything, the need for new plutonium pits has declined.
Now, 14 years later, after two Presidents, Clinton and Obama, decided separately that such a facility is not necessary, a 2006 study by the JASONs, an independent scientific panel, concluded that existing pits or primaries will last over 100 years, AND the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), complying with Obama’s decision to defer the construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility (CMRR) for at least five years, wrapped up its activities and called its staff home, the January 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has just authorized $70 million to continue design work on the facility plus $120 million from prior funding that Los Alamos National Laboratory has already returned.
The NDAA also set a date for completion of the project by 2026.
The bill passed the House with a vote of 315 to 105; passage in the Senate was unanimous.
“This is indeed a strange situation,” quips Los Alamos Study Group’s Greg Mello in his response to the bill’s passage. “The strategy of deferral for at least 5 years has been endorsed by the Pentagon, the U.S. Strategic Command, the DOE and NNSA, and all White House offices.” Only the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) apparently disagrees – and has been able to persuade Congress to pass it and the President to sign it, although not without protest.
Just what is going on here?
Is it just the babble of politics, 21st century style?
New Mexico’s liberal and environmentally-conscious Senator Tom Udall is a newly appointed member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He has gone on record to say he will seek funding to support the authorization.
In a telephone interview, Udall said he supported authorization of the funds because “I believe delaying CMRR will put the important security work of the Lab on hold.” The existing CMR building, he went on to say, “is 60 years old. It’s in poor condition, technically obsolete, and so unsafe that when I went to see it they wouldn’t even let me enter some parts of that building.”
The condition of the CMR building is actually irrelevant, according to Mello, who wrote in a 25-page July 16, 2012 letter to Senator Levin, head of SASC, that “CMRR-NF cannot be assumed to provide greater safety, given that CMR is being retired in any case.” (emphasis added)
It’s surprising that Senator Udall is so uninformed. The NNSA had already proposed, in February, immediately upon the deferment of the CMRR, an alternative plan for manufacturing pits at lower cost by modifying existing facilities.
It’s hard to believe that anyone could argue for the “need” for this unaffordable superstructure when the agency has already found another, cheaper way to perform the task in a tight fiscal environment.
Udall then remarked that “the work done in that building benefits nonproliferation efforts, and we’ve had trouble with that, as you know,” referring to lack of full U.S. compliance with the requirements of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970 mandating that those countries who possess nuclear weapons strive to reduce them.
“I support the President’s goal for a world without nuclear weapons. Several presidents have expressed the same goal, including Clinton and Reagan and even Bush. But the reality is that we’re going to have to work with other nations toward that, and it all takes time,” Udall explained.
“The START treaty is evidence of our intention. But if we had said we’re going down to zero, it would not get through the Senate.” New START, signed by Russia and the United States in 2010, is an agreement by both countries to slightly reduce their nuclear arsenals.
It’s hard to see how making 50-80 plutonium pits per year would be a step toward non-proliferation. Pits are the cores of thermonuclear weapons. Nonproliferation by proliferation?
Senator Udall talked about the threat of Iran, obliquely connecting the production of more nuclear weapons by the U.S. with stopping Iran from making even one, which Iran has repeatedly stated it has no intention of doing. But if North Korea can have some, Israel can pretend it doesn’t have at least 200, and India and Pakistan can threaten to blow up Kashmir with theirs, then clearly nonproliferation is not working very well anyway.
Udall’s statement echoes other Congressional comments that the CMRR was needed to meet “the requirements of START.” But he didn’t spell out the connection between manufacturing pits and following the requirements of the New START of 2010, in which the U.S. and Russia have agreed to relatively small reductions in their arsenals.
Asked why we would need new plutonium pits when there are some 10,000 stored in Amarillo, Texas, he said that information was “classified.”
Speaking of the environment and the necessity of cleaning up the contamination left by 65 years of nuclear weapons activity on the Hill, Udall’s voice rang with sincerity, but he did not reply to a question about the inadequate funding provided to the Lab for this work – less than one percent of its annual budget.
A comment by Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan) may shed some light on this mind-boggling situation.
In September, concerned that Obama’s five-year deferment of the CMRR project represented a cancellation, he wrote a letter to acting Department of Energy Deputy Chief Financial Officer Joanne Choi in which he explained, according to an article in the Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor:
A central tenant [sic] of our arms control policy is that as we draw down to fewer numbers of warheads, we will reduce the hedge or backup warheads, relying instead on an ability to reconstitute the hedge, based on a sound plutonium science capability provided by the CMRR-NF…
The cancellation decision and this associated reprogramming runs counter to the policy of relying on responsive infrastructure and stockpile stewardship science rather than deployed or hedge warheads.” (emphasis added)
A similar argument was aired at the Methodist Church here in Santa Fe during a one-day conference on the CMRR in 2010.
One of the speakers was Joe Martz, who was the project director for the New Mexico team for the Reliable Replacement Warhead, another large project of NNSA’s that Congress finally refused to fund.
Martz claimed he worked at LANL because of his commitment to disarmament. He was excited about the way the CMRR would move us closer to that goal, he said, because instead of stockpiling lots of nuclear weapons, it would essentially create the capacity to churn out weapons only when needed, preserving the deterrent capability while reducing the number of weapons on hand.
Could this explain what some senators have said about the “meeting the requirements” of the New START?
I wanted to ask Joe Martz about this, but my email to him got forwarded to LANL Communications Officer Kevin Roark, who told me that the NNSA had directed the Lab to relay all questions to its Public Affairs Office in Washington, D.C. After two phone calls and several emails, I received this response from Josh McConaha, Director of Public Affairs: “We are still reviewing the law and its impacts to our work.”
One is left to speculate whether or not Senator Levin may be alluding to the same capacity for churning out weapons on demand that had made Martz so cheerful, and whether that is official nuclear policy.
If so, it’s a sort of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to nuclear policy. The U.S. would continue to reduce its arsenal while enhancing its capacity to make new weapons, making new pits to have on hand to expedite the assembly line process of quickly producing new bombs.
In his line-by-line critique to Levin of the SASC Report 2467, Mello finds him uninformed on a great many key points regarding the “need” for the CMRR, refuting that any such need exists. But Mello said he did not know anything about the “hedge.”
Rather, as Mello has stated elsewhere, the explanation for the new state of affairs is simply that Section 3114 of the NDAA is a capitulation by politicians to defense contractors “whose lobbyists have played an outsized role in drafting this [authorization] bill”:
Overall, this is a nuclear lobbyist’s bill. Numerous provisions are included that will add bureaucratic complexity to the management of the warhead complex, tie up federal efforts in ways that stifle reform, provide new political power to nuclear management and operating (M&O) contractors, and tilt the playing field toward new programs and projects.
Allocation normally follows authorization as the night follows day, but with the military supporting the deferral of CMRR, surprises may lie ahead. Los Alamos Study Group is not giving up the fight, having won so many skirmishes up until now. Its lawsuit against NNSA for failure to show alternatives to CMRR in its Environmental Impact Statement, as required by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), was instrumental in revealing the flaws in the project to the Obama administration.
Other local groups have also opposed the CMRR. Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety brought earthquake hazards on the Parjarito Plateau to the attention of the Nuclear Defense Review Board in 2012.
Nuclear Watch New Mexico Executive Director Jay Coghlan says that if no new funds are provided from somewhere else (and where would that be?) the Lab will have to pull the needed dollars from its own budget, likely leading to substantial layoffs of local people whose very jobs, as politicians hasten to assure us, are constantly being generated in the ongoing militarization of New Mexico.
But in this unique moment, it still remains possible that CMRR will rest in peace.
Stephanie Hiller is an independent journalist and editor based in Santa Fe. She blogs at http://stephaniehiller.wordpress.com