A former White House aide on Monday said that the directors of the U.S. national laboratories “came forward” during closed-door budget-planning sessions five months ago to propose a delay in building a plutonium research facility, a plan that has since drawn Republican fire.
Lawmakers have taken great interest in what the heads of the three main laboratories -- Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia -- think about the ramifications of delaying work on the $6 billion Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement plant because these institutions play a key role in overseeing the nuclear arsenal.
The so-called CMRR building -- slated for location at Los Alamos, N.M. -- would replace a Cold War-era site that performs analytical chemistry and related research on plutonium cores, or explosive “pits,” for U.S. nuclear arms. The facility would help ensure that new and existing nuclear-weapon pits would function, if needed, despite a decades-long moratorium on underground explosive testing.
As the Obama administration was putting the final touches on its request for fiscal 2013 funds for the nuclear-weapons complex, top officials fretted over the roughly $800 million in funding cuts already taken from the National Nuclear Security Administration’s 2012 budget, said Jon Wolfsthal. Until March, he was special adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden for nuclear security and nonproliferation and served on the National Security Council staff.
The nuclear agency, a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department, oversees the national laboratories and the rest of the atomic complex. Half of the $800 million reduction for the current budget year comprised cuts to the agency’s nuclear weapons activities.
“It was the lab directors that came forward and said, ‘Because we’re concerned about the ability to fund this program and have it deliver on time, we’ve looked at it and think that there’s a way you can do the necessary sampling of plutonium work to allow us to have a certain pit production rates in the midterm, without having to build CMRR,’” said Wolfsthal, paraphrasing his understanding of the complex leaders’ recommendation.
The Obama administration went on to announce during the February release of its fiscal 2013 budget request that it planned to save $1.8 billion over the next five years via a half-decade postponement in work on the CMRR facility. Many observers interpreted the move as, in fact, spelling doom for ever building the plant. Construction of the site was to have been completed by 2024, but is now delayed indefinitely.
“Like so many DOE endeavors, we started off to 'save' a little money -- now an insignificant amount -- and the original goals got lost in the staggering spending that followed," said Roger Logan, a former head of Directed Stockpile Work at California's Livermore lab, referring to initial plans for streamlining plutonium research and pit production.
The National Nuclear Security Administration said in February that it would weigh alternative methods for meeting warhead requirements in coming years.
At the same time, the administration was reviewing whether it would still need a long-anticipated production capacity of 50 to 80 atomic pits per year -- samples of which would have to pass through the CMRR facility for analysis -- or if instead future reductions in the size of the nuclear arsenal might lessen the demand for facilities on the scale of that planned for the new research site. Currently, Los Alamos produces less than 10 pits annually, according to lab spokesman Kevin Roark.
Today’s U.S. nuclear stockpile, including both fielded and nondeployed weapons, numbers roughly 5,000 warheads. However, additional negotiated U.S.-Russian arms control reductions or Washington’s unilateral weapon retirements could lower that figure significantly in future years.
“NNSA has determined, in consultation with the national laboratories, that the existing infrastructure in the nuclear complex has the inherent capacity to provide adequate support for these missions,” according to a nuclear agency budget document released in February. As a workaround, “NNSA will modify existing facilities, and relocate some nuclear materials,” the agency said.
However, the idea that the laboratory directors were on board with the decision to delay the CMRR project was quickly thrown into question. Charles McMillan, who heads Los Alamos, circulated a letter emphasizing the importance of the site to keeping the nation’s nuclear weapons in working order, a development first reported by the trade news publication Weapons Complex Morning Briefing.