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Los Alamos Plutonium Lab Costs Rise

U.S. nuclear weapons program officials acknowledged in late November that the cost estimate for an already expensive project to build a new plutonium laboratory in New Mexico continues to rise and could reach nearly $6 billion, the Albuquerque Journal reported on Sunday (see GSN, Oct. 29).

The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement complex at the Los Alamos National Laboratory is intended to replace a World War II-era plutonium facility. Officials have maintained that the site, to be used by researchers studying radioactive substances such as plutonium, is critical to fulfilling Los Alamos's nuclear weapons mission.

A National Nuclear Security Administration report delivered last month to Capitol Hill increased previous price estimates for the project to between $3.7 billion and $5.8 billion. It is expected to be completed in 2023.

In 2007, the new plutonium laboratory was projected to cost only $800 million and was anticipated to be brought online by 2014.

Design work for the laboratory is less than halfway complete so project time lines and costs could continue to change (see related GSN story, today). One building in the metallurgy complex with office and laboratory spaces has been completed.

"We rarely see a cost go down," said Donald Cook, who leads the NNSA Defense Programs office, which manages the project.

Documents and interviews demonstrate that the laboratory's designers failed to accurately assess the expense of putting in place the required strong nuclear safety safeguards at the metallurgy complex. The newest designs include plans for a significantly greater depth to the foundation and enormous quantities of concrete and steel to firm the facility against earthquake tremors.

The National Nuclear Security Administration -- a semiautonomous branch of the Energy Department -- has seen many of its projects significantly exceed initial cost projections. This led the Government Accountability Office to place the NNSA building program on its "high risk list" for U.S. agencies with oversight issues that are "impeding effective government and costing the government billions of dollars each year," states a July GAO note to the nuclear agency.

A separate NNSA construction initiative -- the Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee -- has also come under fiscal fire for serious cost overruns. The highly enriched uranium plant was originally projected in 2004 to cost between $600 million and $1.1 billion, but costs have since gone up to between $4.2 billion and $6.5 billion.

The latest NNSA price projections for the Y-12 and Los Alamos projects demonstrate the agency's work to accurately gauge construction and development expenses before building begins, NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera said.

"We don't like our reputation any more than they do," LaVera said in responding to the GAO criticism.

Bob Peurifoy, a former vice president at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, said cost overruns were the result of "mismanagement."

"They've fallen down the rabbit hole," Peurifoy said, echoing complaints from other nuclear-weapon specialists. "It's madness. They don't understand accountability to the taxpayer" (John Fleck, Albuquerque Journal, Dec. 5).

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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