Sep 27, 2007

Lab updates biggest construction project

ROGER SNODGRASS Monitor Assistant Editor

The major construction project known as the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility held another semi-annual meeting Wednesday, under terms of a formal agreement for air-quality permitting.

Although a scheduling conflict was said to have limited attendance by some of the "Interested Parties," the public interest groups named in the settlement, several representatives were present and a vigorous question-and-answer period ensued during the last half of the presentation.

The meeting at the Best Western Hilltop House contrasted with previous meetings by the strong showing of personnel directly related to the project itself who outnumbered representatives of public interest groups.

Their specific answers enabled some questions and concerns that came up during the meeting to be resolved on the spot.

Groundbreaking on the CMRR adjacent to the Plutonium Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory took place in early 2006. Excavation was carried out for both buildings of the project, although funding through completion is still contingent. Construction began in May and heavily reinforced concrete walls are now rising for the first phase, known as the Radiation Laboratory/Utility office building (RLUOB)

Programmatic and political questions swirl around the project, which has been funded in a Senate committee's appropriation bill, but not funded at all in an appropriation bill passed by the House.

Answers related to budget uncertainties, and long-term purposes and intentions for the facility were in short supply as the officials emphasized the status and goals of the immediate construction activities.

Tom Whitacre, the radiological laboratory project manager, said RLUOB would be a five-story, 186,000-square-foot office building, containing 350 offices and training space with a total cost estimated at $126 million. This first phase of the project is about 25-percent finished, he said, and the full CMRR is at about the 5-percent mark.

Trish Williams-Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group asked about reports that CMRR budget estimates had "passed $1.5 billion on the way to $2 billion total."

A project flyer printed for the groundbreaking ceremony lists the budget at $745-$975 million over eight to 12 years.

Steve Fong, the federal project director for the CMRR, said there were only firm estimates for first-phase RLUOB so far, because the Nuclear Facility, the larger and much more expensive structure, is "still in design."

Questions focused on some of the seismic, air-quality and quality-assurance issues that had been raised previously.

Don Brown, a former quality assurance official at the lab, thought the process should address and attempt to resolve concerns that had been raised previously. He had additional questions related to the qualifications of the contractor to work on nuclear facilities and training for auditors and on-site inspectors.

A concern about design-build contract for the Nuclear Facility, pressed by the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board, was apparently resolved.

Fong said the program sponsors decided last November to revise the plan for a simultaneous design and build contract to a more conventional construction process, in which the design process would precede the bidding for the construction contract.

Scott Kovac of Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Cameron Sadaf of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety who had provided a five-page list of questions in advance, received answers for several of those during the meeting.

Previous concerns about new and continuing investigations related to increased earthquake risks at the laboratory were partially addressed during the formal presentation.

A May 2007 Geotechnical Engineering Report and a June 2007 Probabilistic Seismic Hazard analysis have been completed and will be made available next spring. A Seismic Mapping of the Nuclear Facility Excavation is still in process but will be completed and provided to the designers before final construction.

The CMRR project's 2003 Environmental Impact Statement estimated that 1,645 curies of fission noble gases would be released annually by facility operations, according to Sadaf. Her question about the emission source and monitoring plan for that air quality issue went unanswered.


Anonymous said...

How is the CMRR facility being built when Congress hasn't even fully signed off on the idea yet? Does this project have the possibility of being stopped in mid-stream with the current construction being left half completed? What's the real story here? Was the construction rapidly started with minimal Congressional guidance in attempt to make it a fait acompli?

Pinky and The Brain said...

We are diversifying our mission. We do not need the approval of congress for this.

Oh wait, I meant to say congress will approve once they find out.

Oh wait, we don't have to answer this question. Go file a FOIA request and stop bothering us.

Anonymous said...

Haven't you guys heard? Pit production is LANL's future. From the article:

"A project flyer printed for the groundbreaking ceremony lists the budget at $745-$975 million over eight to 12 years."

And this is just the tip of the profits that Bechtel plans to make during the next decade or two at LANL, because guess who is going to build the CMRR and related facilities?

Go on, guess.

Cost overruns, change orders, the whole arsenal of Bechtel's government milking machine is going to grow this pit fab facility construction project into a $10 - $15 billion money-making windfall for our corporate sugar-daddy.

Bechtel doesn't need no steenken Congressional approval for this. As you can see -- it's already underway.

Anonymous said...

"Bechtel doesn't need no steenken Congressional approval for this. As you can see -- it's already underway."
- 9/27/07 2:20 PM

And safely hidden from the public's view on the heavily secured Parajito Road, I might add. Safe from gawkers like those pesky Congressmen. It's almost like one of those secretive black projects.

Besides, if Congress later kills funding for it, Bechtel will make a ton of money tearing the completed structure down. They win either way.

John Fleck said...

1:42 - The project is being built in two (or three depending on how you count) phases. The first phase, the light lab, which is what is under construction now, has already been authorized and funded by Congress. I'm a bit puzzled by the second hole in the ground. Full details on this process, if you're inclined to wade through them, are in Vol. 1 of the DOE's budget request:

I'm more than a little puzzled by the document's page numbering. Easiest way to find it is to search on the project's number: 04-D-125

You'll see that the document makes quite clear (and I've written in the Journal about this at some length) that the NNSA is simultaneously moving ahead with the project while considering killing it (their words - it is being "reassessed to assure that the proposed scope is still valid").

Doug said...


"...the NNSA is simultaneously moving ahead with the project while considering killing it..."

A clever (by NNSA standards) ploy to confuse Congress into thinking that they (Congress) have already approved some kind of a plan for going ahead with turning LANL into RFP-South.


Anonymous said...

Bechtel will get their pit factory at LANL, the Congress be damned.

Kratchity ol' Bob Foley and dour Mr. Dynes at UCOP completely sold out the science at LANL to make their hideous LLC deal.

Bechtel didn't come into LANL to manage a bunch of pointed-headed scientists. They came because of the smell of big money on the Hill. The $79 million management fee is chump-change for a engineering firm like Bechtel. LANL will end up being one of the most profitable deals Bechtel has ever secured at a DOE/NNSA facility.

As they say in the movies "follow the money trail". Does anyone seriously think that Tom D'Agostino was an honest broker as the sole person to make NNSA's decision in favor of LANS?

John Fleck said...

Doug -

Don't underestimate the members of Congress (and/or their staffs) on this. The House Appropriations report makes quite clear that they're paying attention, zeroing out funding for the project:

"The CMRR facility has no coherent mission to justify it unless the decision is made to begin an aggressive new nuclear warhead design and pit production mission at Los Alamos National Laboratory."

For their part, the House appropriators are unwilling to fund work on the next phase of CMRR until such a decision is explicitly made.

Y'all at Los Alamos interested in this question of future pit manufacturing mission would be well served by taking an hour or two and reading the House and Senate report language.

You want the Energy and Water H.Rept. and S.Rept.

Doug said...

Thanks for the pointer, John.

Regarding my ability to underestimate Congress, well, I'm of the opinion that it is impossible to underestimate Congress.

As pertains to the perceived plans to "Rocky Flatten" LANL, if Congress is so dead set against it, why do we have such a big hole in the ground out there at TA-55? How was it paid for if not with Congressional-approved funds?