.News Update 5/17/06

House Committee Cuts Funding for Plutonium Facility

House Committee Cuts Funding for Plutonium Facility

The House Subcommittee for Energy and Water Development Appropriations cut construction funding for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project (CMRR) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) for Fiscal Year 2007. The CMRR is proposed to replace the old 1950Ős era Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building at LANL. The House Subcommittee cut the funding by $100 million to $12.4 million.

The CMRR would perform analytical chemistry, materials characterization and metallurgy studies on radioactive elements, such as uranium and plutonium. It would be connected to LANL's plutonium pit production facility. A pit is the trigger for a nuclear bomb.

There are major concerns with the construction and planning of the CMRR facility. On June 1, Bechtel Corporation will join the University of California as a major management partner. Bechtel is currently building a high-level radioactive waste treatment plant at the Hanford Site in Washington state. This project has been riddled with problems, including escalating high-cost and design flaws, which have resulted in suspended construction. In building the CMRR, Bechtel plans to use a method called "design-as-you-build," in which construction begins before plans are finalized. This method has been identified as one of the major contributing factors to the issues at Hanford.

The site at LANL chosen for construction of the CMRR is geologically unstable as the new facility is to be located between two fault zones. A similar failure to adequately account for the structural integrity necessary to withstand an earthquake is one reason why construction at Hanford has been suspended.

The CMRR would support current and expanded future nuclear weapons activities at LANL and throughout the Department of Energy (DOE) complex. DOE recently agreed to build and operate a Consolidated Plutonium Production Center. This facility will be built on a site yet to be determined. All large quantities of weapons grade plutonium and other special nuclear materials will be moved from LANL to the Consolidated Center by 2022.

Construction of the CMRR is not scheduled to be completed until 2014, and estimated to cost up to $1 billion. It would therefore be able to function for only eight years before being replaced by the new Consolidated Center. Congressman Hobson, who heads the House Subcommittee, said in a report that "the [Subcommittee] finds this type of planning by [DOE] simply irrational."

The construction of the CMRR distinctly raises the possibility that long-term pit production could remain and be expanded at LANL. The House Subcommittee noted, "A billion-dollar investment in the CMRR at Los Alamos only makes sense if the [DOE] is prepared to site . . . the Consolidated Plutonium Production Center, at the same location." DOE already plans to increase pit production capabilities at LANL from 10 pits per year to 50. It asserts that an even greater 125 pits per year are needed to re-establish the desired Cold War capacity.

Before the final funding levels for the CMRR are established, the House Subcommittee must reconcile its budget with the corresponding Senate Subcommittee. New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici is a strong supporter of the CMRR. Senate restoration of funding may be a crucial test toward determining LANL's future relation to the nation's Consolidated Plutonium Production Center.

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