Bunker mentality: Is NNSA digging itself into a hole at Los Alamos?

By Greg Mello | May 26, 2010

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and Congress are currently weighing whether–and at what pace and scale, and with what capabilities–to build two large production facilities for warhead components with a combined price tag in the range of $6-7 billion.1

While on the surface these plans appear settled, there has been no administration or congressional go-ahead to build either project, and none are warranted. Beneath the surface, significant unresolved issues concerning mission, urgency, scale, budget, and design remain.

Some of these issues are related to the word “capacity,” as in a supposed “need” to augment or replace the production capability that exists–but what remains a mystery is what precise purpose this capacity serves, how great it should be, how it connects to existing facilities, and when it might be necessary. In the case of these two facilities, none of these questions has been satisfactorily answered.

The first of these projects, and the focus of this article, is the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) to be built at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).2

The CMRR project is composed of two buildings, CMRR-NF being the second and by far the more expensive one, comprising 90 percent of the total estimated project cost. The first CMRR building, the Radiological Laboratory, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB), is physically complete, and NNSA expects it to be ready for use by the end of fiscal year (FY) 2013. The CMRR project is located directly adjacent to LANL’s main plutonium facility, PF-4.

The primary purpose of the CMRR project, and especially the CMRR-NF, is to increase LANL’s installed capacity to make plutonium warhead cores (“pits”), while minimizing the use of existing facilities at LANL and elsewhere in the weapons complex.3

CMRR-NF is currently expected to cost about $3.4 billion.

The other project, the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at the Y-12 site in Tennessee, would make uranium-containing thermonuclear “secondaries.” UPF carries an even vaguer but generally comparable cost.

Uncertain, untallied costs. Costs for each project may grow. The price of CMRR-NF has already grown by roughly a factor of 10, raising renewed questions about the soundness of the business case for the project as a whole and the particular building being designed.

Neither the CMRR-NF nor the UPF budgets, respectively, include the capital costs for all the required new or refurbished support facilities, or the expenses related to operating the buildings or related programs.

Focusing now on the CMRR exclusively, large-scale plutonium pit production may require–in addition to a few hundred million dollars in related capital projects already requested–replacement or augmentation of other major LANL facilities in projects not yet requested by NNSA.4

In documents submitted to the Senate this month as part of the New START ratification package, the administration projects $16 billion in new warhead spending over this decade. The attempt to build CMRR-NF and UPF, and to do so simultaneously, is a major part–roughly 40 percent–of this proposed additional spending. Most of the rest is needed for a proposed Obama administration increase in the pace and intensity of warhead life-extension and upgrade programs.

Not ready for prime time. CMRR-NF construction (including excavation, initial sub-foundation, site utilities, and concrete batch plant) could begin as early as next fiscal year; this is from one to three years before NNSA can complete a baseline for the project, which includes a careful cost estimate, preliminary design, and construction schedule.

NNSA currently anticipates replacing a 50-foot-thick horizon of unconsolidated volcanic ash beneath the site with a 125-foot-deep, slab of “lean concrete”–225,000 cubic yards of it–before completing preliminary building design.

CMRR-NF is a highly complex and utterly unique project. Preliminary design has taken seven years so far and isn’t done. The U.S. has not successfully built a plutonium facility since 1978, when PF-4 opened its doors. An attempt to do so at Rocky Flats in the mid-1980s failed spectacularly. Despite all this, despite NNSA’s poor project management record, and despite what appears to be a lack of convincing mission need (discussed below), CMRR-NF is being managed as a concurrent design-build project.

Under that approach, between one-half and $1 billion will have been spent on the project before preliminary design, cost estimates, and schedules have been completed.

NNSA currently projects CMRR-NF completion in FY 2022–this is 11 years later than originally projected. Given NNSA’s history, the history and difficulty of this particular project, and future uncertainties we can only guess at, this date must be considered tentative.

The administration is currently requesting $225 million for the CMRR project as a whole for next year (FY 2011), a dramatic increase from this year’s $97 million. Perhaps one-fourth of this sum would go toward outfitting RLUOB.

Pyrrhic design. The 270,000-square-foot CMRR-NF would add only 22,500-square-feet of additional plutonium processing and lab space to LANL’s existing 59,600-square-feet of comparable space in PF-4, a 38 percent increase.

The new labs would comprise just 8 percent of the CMRR-NF floor area. Most of the building would be occupied by utilities, ventilation, safety equipment, and by the heavy structure itself.

A 6-metric-ton vault (roughly tripling LANL’s present plutonium capacity), some miscellaneous programmatic space, and room for handling and cleaning out explosion containment vessels5 bring the total programmatic space in CMRR-NF up to just 14 percent of the total floor area. If built, CMRR-NF would be a highly inefficient building in this sense.

The current cost of CMRR-NF lab space works out to $151,000 per square foot, or $1,049 per square inch. PF-4 cost $75 million to build in 1978 ($213 million in 2009 construction dollars). Thus, in constant dollars, CMRR-NF lab space would cost 42 times as much as LANL’s existing plutonium labs did, assuming costs do not increase further.

Did a New Mexico Senator’s enthusiasm suppress more careful analysis? Over the past seven years, congressional discussion of CMRR-NF has waxed and waned. Senate appropriators, guided by then-Sen. Pete Domenici from New Mexico from the beginning of the project through his retirement in January 2009, have strongly favored the project. The Armed Services committees have generally favored the project as well; although in 2009, $50 million, about half the year’s authorized spending, was fenced off pending provisional resolution of seismic and safety design issues between NNSA and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which later occurred.

House appropriators attempted to halt or delay the CMRR project for its first five years, insisting on first having a new Nuclear Posture Review, stockpile plan, and overall infrastructure plan. The first of these plans was released in April, but detailed 10-year stockpile and infrastructure plans have not yet been submitted to Congress. There has never been a business case or detailed mission analysis for CMRR-NF, and these 10-year plans are unlikely to contain any. Congress is supportive of infrastructure modernization overall. Yet at the same time there is a new and growing unease, especially in the Senate, about the fiscal and management practicality of NNSA’s grand ambitions for the coming decade. These plans include three aggressive warhead modernization initiatives (more of them, and more aggressive, than were planned in President Bush’s final years), the two big new factories, and other projects.

If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. For the past few years, the CMRR-NF project has struggled to adequately respond to “new” seismic and safety issues. Actually, these issues were appreciated by NNSA senior management from the beginning of the project to some degree, but they were not officially accepted as applicable. LANL is underlain by a fault system that has produced three earthquakes measuring 6.5 to 7.0 on the Richter scale in the last 11,000 years.

These “new” seismic issues, along with requirements for so-called safety-class ventilation equipment that was also not initially accepted by LANL, have dramatically increased CMRR costs and are not yet fully resolved.

These seismic issues–paired with NNSA’s intent to construct a deeply-buried building, the bottom of which would be in or near a thick layer of unconsolidated volcanic ash–significantly complicate construction logistics, safety, and security. More than 20,000 heavy trucks may need to enter LANL just to deliver the concrete ingredients for this building.

Alternatives would be available if the mission weren’t so absurd. Despite its name, CMRR is not a “replacement” for LANL’s old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) building. It is quite a different building, with significantly different and generally expanded capabilities, especially as regards pit production. And it is now known that at least one wing of the CMR building could be retained.

LANL has considerable latent pit production capacity, with or without CMRR-NF. NNSA’s commonly-communicated production capacity–which has varied over an order of magnitude–is not based on physical limitations but rather on administrative and managerial decisions that are flexible to varying degrees with respect to changes in national policy.

But why make pits at all? Aside from the many potent reasons to steadily diminish a reliance on nuclear weapons and to decrease our stockpile size and investments, there is already a surfeit of backup pits (or backup warheads containing pits) for each delivery system. All these pits will last for many decades to come, far longer than today’s planning horizons. The capability to make pits in considerable quantities is already present today and can be preserved indefinitely in LANL’s existing facilities, where pit production currently occupies only about 30 percent of the total processing space.

Although there would be no rational reason to do it, production capacity could be expanded without CMRR-NF, for example, by allocating additional space and equipment to pit production in PF-4, adding work shifts, increasing management focus, conducting some of the preliminary or ancillary work needed in other facilities, setting up additional production lines in other plutonium facilities–or by implementing all of these.

There is no shortage of space to make pits, either at LANL or nationwide–assuming there were any need to make them, which there isn’t. Were CMRR-NF in place, the above steps and others would increase production capacity to an even more absurd level. The policies and variables affecting pit production capacity have simply never been meaningfully discussed in the open literature by NNSA or LANL.

CMRR-NF’s extremely high space costs–at least 10 times what they were at the beginning of the project–should trigger intensive examination of previously-rejected alternatives, which would require greater mission clarity as well.

With or without CMRR-NF, pit production is difficult, dangerous, and expensive. To successfully do it would require, at a minimum, a truly convincing national need. There isn’t one, and there won’t be one until long past the foreseeable future–assuming science matters. Spending billions of dollars on an unneeded bunker with excellent plumbing and ventilation won’t create a need for new pits, however much some seem to be pining for it.

Every aspect of the CMRR-NF project, from the mission itself to the practicality of the building design, should be questioned far more deeply than Congress has done to date. For once, genuine and balanced security in all its aspects–and not just spending a lot of money to aggrandize the physics labs–should be the goal.

1 All costs are taken from the Department of Energy (DOE) congressional budget justifications, available under “products and services” at http://www.cfo.doe.gov/index.htm.  There are no direct links.
2 For more background see http://www.lasg.org/CMRR/open_page.htm.
3 Although CMRR-NF would have other uses, facilitating prompt large-scale pit production is the primary mission driver.
4 For example, Building 0066 in TA-3, the Sigma Complex, is in poor condition and did not meet seismic requirements even in 1997. Most pit components do not contain plutonium and were produced in that building, up to the late 1990s and may still. Reliable sources inform us, and both logic and NNSA site planning documents suggest, that NNSA maintains a prioritized draft list of additional infrastructure requirements for which funding has not yet been requested. For a list of requested capital projects at LANL related to increased pit production as of two years ago, see http://www.thebulletin.org/the-us-nuclear-weapons-complex-pushing-a-new-production-capability.
5 These vessels, which contain explosions involving plutonium isotopes, are to help certify new pits under a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty regime.  For historical information about this program at LANL see http://www.lasg.org/technical/subcritical-trident.htm.

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