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GAO: Gaps In New Plutonium Facility’s Design Could Push Costs Further

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), shown last month, last week said a new Government Accountability Office report on a planned plutonium research facility in New Mexico points to failures by the National Nuclear Security Administration to estimate and control expenses (AP Photo/Gregory Bull). Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), shown last month, last week said a new Government Accountability Office report on a planned plutonium research facility in New Mexico points to failures by the National Nuclear Security Administration to estimate and control expenses (AP Photo/Gregory Bull).

WASHINGTON-- Spiraling cost estimates for a planned plutonium research facility in New Mexico could be further exacerbated by the fact that the future structure is not designed to accommodate key nuclear arsenal, nonproliferation and homeland security needs, the Government Accountability Office said on Monday (see GSN, Feb. 21).

The future Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory has already seen an almost six-fold hike in projected construction costs, congressional auditors noted in a new report. Construction estimates by the National Nuclear Security Administration have risen from roughly $600 million to between $3.7 billion and $5.8 billion.

The facility is largely intended to replace existing space at Los Alamos used to analyze and store plutonium for nuclear arms activities. The new structure is also central to plans for consolidating at Los Alamos nonweapons plutonium research now conducted at other national labs. However, according to the new report, NNSA designs for the new facility fail to account for such work.

The GAO finding highlights the nuclear agency’s inability to estimate and control costs, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said during a hearing on the NNSA fiscal 2013 budget proposal last week in which she previewed the study. Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, criticized the agency for recently announcing it would push back construction of the already-delayed site by five years after having spent “a billion and a half dollars” on design.

“You spend money and then stop,” Feinstein said during the panel’s hearing. “I don’t understand it.”

The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department, in 2004 said the facility would be 22,500 square feet in size “with a broad suite of capabilities to meet nuclear weapons stockpile needs over the long-term,” according to the report.

However, the new site could be incapable of performing the full complement of necessary research for the nuclear stockpile, GAO auditors stated. Plans for the new structure might not account for some plutonium research, storage and environmental testing needs, along with nonweapons plutonium study related to homeland security and nonproliferation, according to the report: “As a result, expansion of CMRR or construction of more plutonium research and storage facilities at Los Alamos or elsewhere may be needed in the future, potentially adding to costs.”

“For example, NNSA plans to use analytical chemistry capabilities in CMRR to perform nuclear forensics work that would be needed to, among other things, identify the source of and individuals responsible for any planned or actual use of a nuclear device,” the report notes. However, NNSA officials told investigators that programs supporting these nonweapons mission areas, such as the NNSA National Technical Nuclear Forensics Office and Fissile Materials Disposition Office, “were generally not involved in planning the CMRR.”

Agency officials told investigators they are confident the future facility will be able to support necessary nonweapons activities, but the facility’s design does not included dedicated space for such work and includes “little to no contingency space,” the report says. Therefore, the agency may end up not being able to use the facility for all it was intended for, the report says.

The new facility is not even expected to handle all needed weapons activities, though the government intends to eliminate its capability to perform such functions elsewhere, the report says. For example, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California in 2013 is expected to cease testing of plutonium “pits,” the central core of a nuclear weapon. The future Los Alamos facility would not be able to fill this gap “because the systems used to conduct the environmental tests could cause vibrations through the rest of the facility,” disrupting “other work that requires precision instrumentation.” The agency has no final plans for relocating the necessary tests elsewhere, the report says.

Agency officials could not be reached for comment, but according to the report generally agreed with GAO recommendations “to conduct a comprehensive assessment of needed plutonium-related research, storage, and environmental testing needs and to report to Congress on any” changes to its plans for new and existing facilities.

The criticism comes as the White House is touting an NNSA budget request that would provide the agency with $11.5 billion in fiscal 2013 – just shy of 5 percent above the amount allocated in the spending year that ends on Sept. 30. The budget would provide $7.6 billion for nuclear weapons activities, a $363 million boost from the amount appropriated by Congress for this year.

Another $2.5 billion is proposed for NNSA nonproliferation initiatives. The White House deems this a boost from the approximately $2.3 billion allocated for fiscal 2012. Lawmakers, though, have complained that the increase would not benefit “core” programs to prevent the spread of sensitive materials.

Feinstein last week strongly criticized the budget proposal, but said she does not share some lawmakers’ view that the spending plan does not call for enough funding for the modernization of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. To the contrary, Feinstein said the proposal called for “more than sufficient” financial support for such activities.

Feinstein said she was concerned about the nuclear agency’s ability to manage projects and said the solution to cost overruns was not more spending. In addition to the report on Los Alamos, Feinstein cited other examples of spiking expenses, including the Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee. Projected costs for the plant have risen from $600 million to $6 billion, she said.

Discussing the delay in construction at Los Alamos, NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino said his organization had already built part of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility, which he called the “radiation building.” He said the agency recently determined that this building could handle higher-gram quantities of plutonium than previously thought, reducing the need to urgently construct an entire new plutonium facility during a time of fiscal constraint.

The agency in a safety analysis changed the conversion factors used to estimate the radiation dose a human body would receive if exposed to a particular material, D’Agostino said. A switch to “the most up-to-date modern internationally accepted dose-conversion factors” showed the existing building, once thought only usable for “small-gram quantities like 4 to 6 grams” of plutonium, could also handle “higher-gram quantities like 34 to 39 grams plutonium,” D’Agostino said, without elaborating on the nature of the building’s work.

“It doesn’t sound like a lot of plutonium and it’s not a lot of plutonium, but that one change alone will allow us to do the analysis in the radiation building that we didn’t think we could do there,” D’Agostino said. “In essence, it’s a very significant increase in the amount of work we can do in this radiation building.”

For Feinstein and other lawmakers, the Obama administration’s plan to cut funding for certain global nonproliferation programs is also cause for concern.

The subcommittee chairwoman referenced cuts to the Second Line of Defense initiative, which installs radiation detection equipment at foreign border crossings, seaports and airports. If endorsed by Congress, the request for $92.6 million would amount to a 65-percent funding cut to the program from the $262.1 million lawmakers allocated in the current budget year.

By the end of 2012 the program will have installed detection equipment at nearly 500 foreign ports or border crossing sites, including 383 customs sites in Russia, the agency’s budget says. However, until recently, it had planned to “accelerate efforts to deploy detection equipment at 650 sites in 30 countries and 100 international seaports by the end of 2018,” Feinstein said. Now, however, the organization has announced its intention to take a “strategic pause” consistent with the planned funding cuts to the program, she noted.

Senior NNSA officials have defended the cuts, saying the near completion of its work in Russia and a constrained budget environment made it prudent to “pause” and evaluate the initiative’s future (see GSN, March 7).

Feinstein, though, said the plan is alarming given continued concerns about the smuggling of dangerous nuclear material. She said the International Atomic Energy Agency had reported 147 smuggling cases in 2011.

The modernization of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile “cannot come at the expense of nonproliferation activities,” Feinstein said.

Other key lawmakers have said they shared Feinstein’s concern about planned cuts to nonproliferation efforts, Second Line of Defense in particular. Earlier this month Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), who chairs the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, said the move would be “an incredible cut to a program which just last year the administration was defending as a critical part of our nation’s efforts to fight the illicit trafficking of nuclear and radiological materials across international borders.”

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