Party's Over

With its budget slashed and a proposed nuclear facility dead in the water, Los Alamos National Laboratory and local activists look for new direction

On the morning of Feb. 13, Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, was sitting in her downtown Santa Fe office when a flurry of emails suddenly flooded her inbox. President Barack Obama had just released his fiscal year 2013 budget, and it dealt a serious blow to a project against which Arends and others have been campaigning for years. The budget recommended that not a single penny go to construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement nuclear facility, a proposed plutonium pit manufacturing plant at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The CMRR was supposed to ramp up production of plutonium pits, allowing LANL to maintain the US' nuclear weapons stockpile by replacing old warheads with newly manufactured ones. It was to replace the older (and confusingly named) Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) facility, which was built in the 1950s. (Part of the new CMRR complex, called the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building, was completed in 2010.) Instead, Obama recommended funding construction of a different nuclear laboratory, in Tennessee, and deferring construction of the CMRR for five years.

Greg Mello, executive director of Los Alamos Study Group, was at his "battle station"—his desk at LASG's Albuquerque office—when he read about the budget recommendation on the White House Office of Management and Budget website.

"Washington was rife with rumors, but the precise wording [of the budget recommendation] was unknown to us," Mello says. "We were very happy because the budget said in black and white that they didn't need the facility."

Two days later, at the routine organizational meeting for Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Executive Director Jay Coghlan and Operations and Research Director Scott Kovac took time to bask in the good news.

"We did toast with champagne," Coghlan says.

Though they might not agree on what killed the CMRR—or even whether it's really dead—these activists certainly had a reason to congratulate themselves. The CMRR, first conceived in 1999, would have cost approximately $6 billion to construct, would have increased the amount of waste the lab generates and would have further committed LANL to a mission of nuclear weapons manufacturing. After cracking open the champagne, however, these activists had a new cause: figuring out what exactly this fork in the road means for LANL and for northern New Mexico.

Eight days after the budget was released, LANL announced it would have to lay off 400-800 workers, ideally through voluntary separation packages. Since LANL is regarded as one of the primary economic engines of northern New Mexico, the CMRR defunding was seen as a threat to the region’s economic health. Española Mayor Alice Lucero even made public comments suggesting that the CMRR would help achieve lab cleanup milestones required under law, though this is not the case. (An operating CMRR would have increased the lab’s waste output and is unrelated to cleanup.) 

But even though the timing of the news release suggested the layoffs were a direct consequence of the CMRR’s defunding, the lab has backpedaled from that assertion. At a March 13 public forum in Española, LANL Executive Director Richard Marquez said the CMRR defunding “doesn’t affect” the need to lay off employees, but added that, had the CMRR’s construction been funded, the number of employees the lab would need to cut “might have been a smaller range.” But when an audience member asked Marquez to give a number for that range, he said he couldn’t.

Maximum fee paid to the University of California when it was LANL’s operator: $8.5 million

Fee paid to Los Alamos National Security, the private conglomeration of companies that now operates LANL, in FY 2011: $74 million

$900 million is the amount spent on the CMRR so far, including construction of the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building, meant to accompany the nuclear facility that is no longer being built. The RLUOB contains 20,000 square feet of lab space and a training facility. It goes into operation next month, and since the budget release, LANL has already been planning ways to adapt the building to the new circumstances. Although the RLUOB was designed as a support building for the CMRR, it can handle plutonium as well—as much as 8.4 grams at a time.

On Feb. 29, Donald Cook, deputy administrator of defense for the National Nuclear Security Administration, spoke at a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee's Energy and Water Development Subcommittee. Cook, whose organization oversees LANL, said the amount of plutonium the RLUOB can handle might be much more than originally intended.

"We…ultimately succeeded in expanding the level of plutonium work that could be done…in RLUOB by a full factor of four," Cook said. But such an increase in the amount of plutonium processed at LANL—and the potential risks it entails—hasn't gone through the environmental impact evaluation and public input process.

Mello and Arends are crying foul.

"I am concerned that NNSA can change its mind without any kind of public notification or independent review and can do so without so much as a formal rule-making process," Mello says. Under federal law, LANL has to notify the public, and often solicit its input, on such decisions.

"Are they just giving themselves permission to increase [the amount of plutonium]?" Arends asks. "There's a lot of unanswered questions."

NNSA spokeswoman Toni Chiri assures SFR that NNSA will "interface with stakeholders and the public" as it moves forward with the possibility of increasing the RLUOB's plutonium handling capacity. Chiri says new international standards for evaluating plutonium exposure risks broadened the options for handling plutonium in the RLUOB.

One question is why, if the RLUOB can do four times what it was originally designed to, and partly fulfill the role envisioned for the CMRR, the public is only hearing about this now. NNSA administrator Tom D'Agostino told Congress five years ago that it might be possible to continue plutonium pit production in Los Alamos without the CMRR, and now, that's proving to be true. The lab plans to use the old CMR building, along with a plutonium facility called PF-4 and the RLUOB, to do what it said was impossible without the new CMRR.

The problem is that a federal nuclear safety oversight board has documented issues with the seismic safety, fire protection and ventilation systems in the two older buildings. Both are located near the Guaje Mountain seismic fault, geologist Robert Gilkeson says, in an area hit by significant earthquakes approximately every 2,500 years. LANL already shut down three of the CMR's eight wings due to such concerns.

But Marquez told the community forum that the CMR will be in operation until 2020, and Kovac says LANL is removing plutonium stores from the CMR and PF-4 plutonium facilities, eliminating the need for the CMRR, which would partly have been used to store plutonium. As activists have been urging the lab to do all along, it is moving the inventory to a Nevada facility with less seismic risk. In addition, glove boxes for working with plutonium are being retrofitted for seismic safety, as activists have also been demanding for years, Kovac says. But Arends says that, until she sees documentation of these steps, activists won't know whether public notification and other requirements are being met.

Will LANL still eventually build the CMRR?
The president’s budget calls it a five-year deferral, but is there really a chance the CMRR’s construction will be funded in FY 2018?

• $900 million has already been spent on its design, plus the construction of the RLUOB.

• “You never know what Congress is going to do in going along with something. I can just see the lab director saying, ‘Hey man, without CMRR, we really can’t certify these weapons anymore,’ and that kind of stuff. Congress generally feels intellectually insecure in challenging anything to do with nuclear technology and nuclear weapons in particular.”—Peter Stockton, senior investigator with Project on Government Oversight

• The plan to extend the life of certain warheads that would necessitate the production of more pits has not even been approved yet.

• Obama plans to release (at an as-yet-unannounced date) an implementation plan for his Nuclear Posture Review that may further reduce the number of nuclear weapons the US can keep in its stockpile.

• The lab is already making moves to use existing facilities to create enough plutonium pits for our current life extension programs for nuclear weapons.

• “I do believe it’s a bit of a Waterloo for nuclear weapons programs at Los Alamos. Not that I’m advocating complacency, but we definitely think it’s a very significant juncture.”—Coghlan

What was the last straw?
“One group can’t claim it was totally responsible, or one lawsuit was responsible,” for derailing the CMRR, Arends says, standing in front of a poster in her office depicting a decade of protests against the facility. But long-standing differences between the strategies of Santa Fe activists such as Arends and Nuclear Watch and those of Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group became stark after the budget release “victory.” A March 10 article in The Santa Fe New Mexican gave the glory to Mello, who sued LANL in 2010 for allegedly violating federal public participation laws by dramatically changing the CMRR plans—and budget—after the facility’s environmental impact statement was approved. Mello has long differentiated himself from Arends and Nuclear Watch by declining to participate in most public forums and stating a lack of concern for drinking water issues caused by LANL’s contamination. He stands by his opinion that the specific issues raised by the lawsuit, rather than the broader-based concerns voiced by the Santa Fe activists, put the last nail in the CMRR’s coffin.

“We won because we were right, not because we were strong—not because we had a big megaphone,” Mello says. “Truth is important, and many people secretly don’t believe in it…it’s the only thing that really allows a little outfit to go across the aisles and talk to people with different political views. A lot of progressives think that they have to have a strong social movement to accomplish anything, so they’re willing to sacrifice what’s true.”

Stockton, whose group created its own report that systematically slashes through LANL's justifications for the CMRR, gives Mello kudos for his work, calling him "a real fuckin' hero." But Coghlan points to a different reason for the project's unraveling, which Stockton also credits as significant. A 2006 study, which found that plutonium pits last almost twice as long as previously believed, struck a blow against the justification for the CMRR. At Nuclear Watch's urging, US Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, demanded that study be conducted. "I think that's the biggest single reason [for the decision]," Coghlan says.

Arends, on the other hand, says the public may never know exactly what happened.

"For people to be taking credit, that their option was the only thing—it's disrespectful to all the people that have been working to oppose this…" Arends says. "I think, as a community, we need to acknowledge all the hard work that everybody's done and celebrate."

Stockton does believe that activism, rather than inherent issues with the CMRR, is what put the kibosh on the project. He points out that, despite defunding the CMRR, the president's budget does fund a different project in Tennessee, the Uranium Processing Facility, set to cost more than $6 billion. The UPF is as big a boondoggle as the CMRR, Stockton says—but it didn't have such vocal opponents.

“[The UPF] is kind of a similar type issue…obviously, the rationale for the CMRR was starting to fall apart on them, but they just haven’t been hounded enough to understand what UPF is all about,” Stockton says.

What’s the lab’s new direction?

With the concentration of PhDs at LANL and the state’s potential position on the forefront of alternative energy technologies, the call for the lab to diversify and focus more on such peaceful, forward-thinking research is a common one. US Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, made that suggestion in an interview with SFR last month. Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque has so far diversified better than LANL, Udall says. 

“We don’t do enough energy research,” Udall says. “If you compare medical to energy, medical invests far more in that field in research, and that’s why they have so much innovation, and we just don’t fund that in the energy area. And really, we’re going to do that in the future…a lot of that work’s going to be done at our national labs.”

Mello says the idea of LANL turning into an alternative energy research center is unrealistic.

"We're not talking about a 'green' lab; that's silly," Mello says. "Congress is not the tiniest bit interested. And that kind of thinking just perpetuates the problem. The lab is…not a solution; the solution lies in our communities."

Alternatives to fossil fuel technology are the future, Mello says, but those will be developed in the private sector and in smaller nonprofits—not at a weapons lab. The best thing northern New Mexico can do is work toward that goal independently and become less reliant on LANL as an economic engine, he says.

With the CMRR off the table, at least for now, activists can turn more of their attention to cleanup issues, Arends says.

"I think we should be focused on getting the contaminants out of the storm water that's flowing through the canyons to the Rio Grande," Arends says.

Kovac says the lab may be more receptive to that idea, too, now that it's not preoccupied with the CMRR.

“We have sources inside the lab that say designing the CMRR was just taking everybody’s focus and everybody’s attention, and it was just this huge suck of energy,” Kovac says. “Everybody was focused on it. I think everybody can get back to work and do their regular jobs now that that’s over, and I believe it will have a positive effect on cleanup.”

One thing everyone agrees on is that LANL—and by extension, northern New Mexico—is at a turning point.
“The party is over,” Mello says. “The death of the CMRR is part of the process. It’s a marker, a data point in the unraveling of our imperial way of being…it’s a very hopeful time.”  SFR

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