By ROGER SNODGRASS
Los Alamos Daily Post
A new report from the Government Accountability Office finds little to like about the latest plans for building plutonium production and analysis capacity at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Congress has asked the lab to step up its potential to supply pits, or plutonium triggers, for the existing nuclear arsenal and meet the needs of a modernized inventory of nuclear weapons, while making way for additional process equipment upgrades.
DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration have the responsibility to forge a strategy to pick up the pieces of earlier efforts to build a Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility, presumably based on input and recommendations by Los Alamos National Security, approaching their last year as the current contract managers.
The previous project suffered from extraordinary budget increases under LANS, from a $745 million to $975 million range in 2005, to as much as $5.8 billion in 2012, when it was deferred for five years.
The new scheme does have a lower estimated cost than the last CMRR proposal, but GAO points out that “agency estimates of cost savings may be overstated,” because they do not include two modular structures and additional buildings that are proposed but not yet budgeted.
Even more alarming, according to GAO, is the apparent confusion about how best to measure production performance and how that will relate to meeting critical mission requirements. “For example,” the report states, “NNSA and DOE management officials we interviewed have drawn their own, widely different conclusions about the extent to which the revised CMRR project will support pit production.”
In interviews with senior NNSA and DOE officials, the auditors found a wide range of expected output from the new project, from 30 pits a year to the 10 pits the lab had already demonstrated its ability to produce by 2011.
In fact, the current requirement originated in a DOE and Department of Defense interagency group, Nuclear Weapons Council, which set the production goal at 50 to 80 pits a year.
To be precise, the numbers were codified in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, calling for NNSA to be able to make at least 10 certified pits during 2024, 20 in 2025, not less than 30 in 2026, and demonstrate the ability to make 80 pits per year during a 90-day period in 2027, a culmination that could be delayed for two years if the two departments agree to justify the dispensation.
As to why the lab has to re-demonstrate its ability to make 10 pits again, 13 years after the first demonstration, consider the long gap in production and the fact that the Plutonium Facility 4, the only plutonium pit production facility in the country, has been on pause for the last three years.
So, the DOE and NNSA officials who commented about production numbers were correct about the different requirements and possibly merely talking about different years.
At the same time, NNSA has incorporated in its planning documents a statement that the reason the original CMRR project outgrew its budget and schedule was because of poorly defined requirements for the facility, which remains one of the fundamental problems in the new project and a valid reason for finding fault.
An additional clue about the many paradoxes that still exist in the new plan can be found elsewhere in the report. In a discussion about the Plutonium Modular Approach, the longer range plan to provide additional plutonium support facilities, the auditors once again failed to find the requisite “key performance parameters,” for “no less than two modular nuclear facilities,” with minimal descriptions of “mission need,” i.e., what they are supposed to do.
Again, the report quotes an NNSA official involved in the initial plans who rationalizes the unresponsive information about a $1.5 billion to $3 billion project as balancing compliance with what Congress says against compliance with DOE planning regulations. The DOE planning requirements were established in order to avoid planning disasters like the original CMRR project, but already the planning requirement can be blamed as an impediment.
Essentially, there are too many variables over a long period of time, too much uncertainty about legislative and executive branch stability to enable sound planning practices. Balancing compliances in an unpredictable landscape is a risky business.
Like earlier attempts to scale up pit production at LANL, this one has been greeted off the bat with great skepticism by the GAO, but in keeping with the gallant tradition of governmental self-reviews, faults are depersonalized.
The fundamental assumptions and conventional wisdom about the state of affairs are taken for granted. The auditor audits, the subject replies and goes on with the risky business as long as possible.
The GAO has taken well over a year to come up with a stuffy, picky trouncing of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.
Local watchdog organizations could come up with a better critique in half a day. This misses the decisive parts like what battles were won or lost with the Pentagon, the DOE and the Office of the Budget and what elegant solutions Congress messed up or failed to fund.
Lacking the urgency and compelling purpose of its formative years, LANL finds it harder and harder to beat against the fickle political winds, or separate itself from them.
“O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer, Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?” mused the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. “How do you tell the dancer from the dance?”