LANL Plutonium Facility Delayed

LANL Plutonium Facility Delayed

The federal government has put the brakes on a proposed plutonium lab at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) due to concerns over rising cost estimates and congressional skepticism of the need for the new lab. Recently, the House of Representatives cut the funding for the new lab, named the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Building (CMRR), by $59 million for Fiscal Year 2008.

For decades, the Department of Energy (DOE) proposed to replace the old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building. In the 1990s, they decided to upgrade the old building instead. Congress had invested more than $100 million in remodeling the old building, when that project was dropped in favor of construction of a new plutonium lab.

At a recent Congressional hearing, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) chief Thomas D'Agostino reported that preliminary cost estimates for CMRR construction have jumped from $837 million to as much as $1.5 billion. NNSA had hoped to begin formal construction next year. However, D'Agostino reported that his agency now is reviewing its options.

The NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within DOE, which manages the nuclear weapons programs.

Congress has questioned how the CMRR will fit into the NNSA long-term plans for maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile. NNSA has proposed the construction of a new consolidated plutonium center for research and manufacturing of plutonium pits in addition to the CMRR building. Although LANL is one of the sites under consideration for the plutonium center, the location has not been decided and the decision could render the CMRR project obsolete a decade after it is completed. In a report last year, Representative David Hobson, of Ohio, called building the CMRR at LANL "irrational."

Pre-construction activities have already begun at LANL for the three CMRR buildings. Recently, LANL excavated the site and removed 210,000 cubic yards of dirt. The excavation is of particular concern to community groups because the CMRR site is located next to a 12-acre legacy waste dump, named Area C, which operated before the current dump at Area G. It comprises six pits, a hazardous chemical pit and 107 disposal shafts and contains solid radioactive and hazardous wastes and sludges, as well as classified wastes. Yet, the exact inventory is not known. LANL is preparing to clean up the site, but the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) sent a notice of deficiency for inadequate characterization of site. This means LANL cannot say what contaminants have been or may be released. LANL excavated the 210,000 cubic yards of dirt despite the inadequate characterization.

In 2005, LANL was required to obtain an air emissions permit for the CMRR from NMED. Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS), and other groups, protested the permit. During negotiations, the permit was segmented into two parts. NMED issued a permit for the office and utility buildings, but denied a permit for the CMRR nuclear facility. Despite this, LANL removed 90,000 cubic yards of dirt for the nuclear facility. CCNS and others questioned NMED about whether LANL was required to obtain an air permit for this removal. The question remains outstanding.

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