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.
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.
• 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.
“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.
"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."
"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.”
Santa Fe Reporter