“Without CMRR, there is no identified path to meet the nation’s requirement of 50 to 80 pits per year,” McMillan told his lab staff in a Feb. 14 letter obtained by Global Security Newswire. “Assuming further investments in [Los Alamos] facilities, we are confident we can deliver -- but only a portion of that requirement.”
He elaborated in April 18 written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.
The CMRR plant “fulfills a critical mission in supporting the analytical chemistry and metallurgy needed to certify that the plutonium used in the stockpile meets basic material requirements,” McMillan stated. He said that a 60-day analysis would address potential alternatives for the new building, combined with additional measures such as recycling old pits, but emphasized that no adequate substitute had yet been identified to replace CMRR construction.
Wolfsthal this week suggested that the architects of the plan to put work on the facility on ice were none other than McMillan and his Livermore and Sandia counterparts.
“This was the lab directors coming to NNSA and saying, ‘We think we can save you money’ -- perhaps an unprecedented step – and saying, ‘We think we can do plutonium work without building the CMRR in New Mexico,’ ” Wolfsthal said at an Arms Control Association panel discussion in Washington.
“What the lab directors are worried about -- rightly -- is that we’re going to build facilities and not be able to fund the people that do the real work in those facilities,” he said. “So they came to us with an alternative plan.”
Wolfsthal, now deputy director of the Monterey Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, added in a subsequent interview: “What the lab directors are worried about is we’re going to build a temple to plutonium processing and we’re not going to have anybody who’s able to worship in it.”
The 2011 Budget Control Act mandates a roughly $450 billion cut in defense spending over the next decade, some of which could affect Energy Department nuclear-weapons spending. Under a sequester process, the amount of reductions might at least double, unless Congress by year’s end reverses the legislation’s demand for $1.2 trillion in additional government-wide reductions.
By Wolfsthal’s account, the administration largely signed off on what McMillan and the others had proposed for the plutonium-research facility. His view was first reported last month by Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor.
“It was the lab directors’ recommendation that was then put forward by NNSA and approved by [the White House budget office] and the Nuclear Weapons Council,” a senior oversight panel led by the Defense and Energy departments, Wolfsthal explained in the telephone interview with GSN on Monday.
“The budget requests, from their perspective -- at least as far as I understand it -- are not the problem,” he said. “The problem is the appropriations process. And what they’re worried about is that Congress won’t meet the president’s budget, and therefore they’re trying to make sure there’s some margin for error in the system.”
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, who chairs the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, has led criticism within the chamber of President Obama’s nuclear modernization plans in general and, in this case, has charged that the president “failed to deliver” the promised CMRR facility.
“All of a sudden, Congress is screaming, ‘You broke your promise.' I think it’s just partisan gamesmanship,” Wolfsthal said at the Monday event. “I think it’s largely designed to try and detract from the president’s pretty impressive accomplishment in investing in the nuclear complex in a reasonable way.”
Others say, though, that it would be wrong to conclude that McMillan or other laboratory directors initiated work on the proposal for a five-year CMRR delay.
“When we are asked to provide technical alternatives, we do,” McMillan said in a written response on Monday to questions following Wolfsthal’s remarks. “We are committed to delivering the best scientific and technical solutions to ensure the safety, security,and effectiveness of the nation’s nuclear deterrent.”
He called the decision to defer work on the CMRR building “a painful one for Los Alamos.”
“I continue to maintain that the capabilities of the proposed CMRR facility are vital to national security,” McMillan asserted in the statement provided to GSN.
The internal administration budget deliberations in late December and early January were more of a back-and-forth between NNSA officials and the research sites, according to some. All sides reportedly voiced concerns about how best to fulfill responsibilities for maintaining and safeguarding the nuclear stockpile under growing fiscal constraints.
Josh McConaha, an NNSA spokesman, was among those this week describing the initiative to delay the plutonium facility as evolving out of interagency discussions.
“The decision to defer [CMRR] by at least five years was made by [NNSA] Administrator Tom D'Agostino, Principal Deputy Administrator Neile Miller, and Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Don Cook,” McConaha said in a written response to questions. “It came after significant consultation with the directors of Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia national laboratories.”
The Budget Control Act forced administration officials “to put our heads together and come up with an alternative that guaranteed the deterrent would remain safe, secure, and effective,” the nuclear agency spokesman said. “Our alternate plan is a true team effort, and included the administrator, the lab directors, and staff from across the country.”
Wolfsthal described a more proactive role for the laboratory directors, but also acknowledged a give-and-take quality to the decision-making.
“My understanding is that this was direct communications, if not face-to-face meetings, within the normal budget-planning process, which is Department of Energy, NNSA, and the lab directors,” he told GSN. “Nobody takes this as dramatic television drama.”
Spokesmen for the Livermore and Sandia laboratories declined to comment on the matter.