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Workaround for U.S. Plutonium Facility Delay Priced at $800 Million

The United States would spend $800 million over 10 years to update facilities at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to conduct nuclear arms activities in place of an unfinished plutonium research complex that the Obama administration is seeking to postpone, according to site records cited on Wednesday by the Albuquerque Journal (see GSN, Aug. 8).

The administration's call six months ago for a pause in efforts to complete the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement plant prompted Los Alamos to prepare a fallback procedure for retaining means to ensure the upkeep of U.S. atomic armaments and for producing additional weapon parts if required. The suspension would extend over half a decade, according to previous reporting.

An existing plutonium research facility now carries out many of the operations, though government personnel have for more than 10 years admitted the site is significantly vulnerable to seismic tremors. Ballooning expense projections have on multiple occasions prompted officials to push back the time line for finishing the new facility.

Under the backup blueprint, personnel would conduct certain activities in a present Los Alamos plant; a facility in California would assess the composition of a quantity of plutonium shipped from Los Alamos; and crews would build a $120 million underground passage for transferring plutonium between sections of the New Mexico site with reduced risk of an accident or breach of protections.

The scheme calls for close to $200 million in alterations that would enable the Los Alamos site's Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building to deal with greater amounts of plutonium.

The blueprint is under review at the National Nuclear Security Administration. The semiautonomous Energy Department agency said it is preparing a formal reaction on the matter.

"The revised plutonium strategy will utilize existing facilities at multiple sites,” NNSA spokesman Josh McConaha said in prepared comments. “It is likely, but not certain, that we will use Superblock at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Device Assembly Facility in Nevada, and the new Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building at Los Alamos National Laboratory. However, nothing has been settled and we are working to finalize the details at this point.”

The Obama administration has publicized little about an April assessment of options by Los Alamos for deferring completion of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement plant, but its leaders provided information on the draft in June statements to an on-site monitoring panel and to Capitol Hill staffers.

The fallback procedure could hamper the laboratory's ability to manufacture additional plutonium nuclear-bomb cores, Los Alamos personnel indicated. The alternate effort would increase the facility's annual core production capacity from 10 at present to a maximum of 30 in the initial part of the next decade, according to an information statement; the quantity would fall between 20 and 50 plutonium "pits" short of the production range Los Alamos and administration sources had previously said would be necessary.

One observer, though, on Tuesday said the document exaggerates the possibility of a shortfall developing in the site's bomb core manufacturing capacity.

Los Alamos previously indicated it could generate 50 such components on an annual basis in the planned plutonium facility's continued absence, added Greg Mello, who heads the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group (John Fleck, Albuquerque Journal, Aug. 8).

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