By John Fleck, Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
LOS ALAMOS— Plutonium chemist Joe Martz looked up at the forbidding concrete building where much of the Cold War's nuclear weapons science was done.
"It is state-of-the-art 1940s technology," Martz said as he gazed through the fence at Los Alamos National Laboratory's Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building.
To people like Martz, a senior manager in the lab's nuclear weapons program, the problems of "CMR," as it is called, are central to the future of the lab's ability to do its job.
Built from 1948 to 1952 and still stuffed with lab space for the study of plutonium and the other dangerously radioactive materials used in nuclear weapons, the building is "past its useful life," Martz said in a recent interview.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent body that monitors lab nuclear safety, believes the aging building is vulnerable to earthquakes and could not contain a radiation leak.
"Continued operation of the CMR facility in its current condition poses significant risks to workers and the public," the board concluded last year.
"That's a dangerous building," said Jay Coghlan, head of the Santa Fe-based Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
A mile down the road, Martz pointed to a beehive of construction that Los Alamos officials hope will solve the problems posed by CMR. Notched into a volcanic mesa, the massive CMR Replacement project will, if it is ever completed, replace the old CMR and the work that goes on inside.
But, as federal officials and members of the public gather this week for public hearings across New Mexico on the future of the U.S. nuclear weapons design and manufacturing complex, the future of the CMR Replacement project is a big "if."
To read the mountains of reports related to the hearings accumulating in Coghlan's Santa Fe office, you might miss the role of CMR and its planned replacement. But for the lab and its opponents, the fate of the aging Cold War building and its multibillion-dollar replacement have landed in the center of the debate over whether we should manufacture new nuclear weapons, and if so, where and how it should be done.
The proposal up for discussion at this week's hearings includes manufacturing 50 to 80 nuclear weapon plutonium cores per year at Los Alamos.
The cores, called "pits," were once built at Rocky Flats, outside Denver. But for nearly two decades, since Rocky Flats closed amid safety and environmental problems, the United States has not made new pits.
'The critical facility'
That changed last year, when Los Alamos started making 10 per year. Expanding that to the proposed 50 to 80 per year requires replacing the CMR building, National Nuclear Security Administration chief Tom D'Agostino told members of Congress in February.
"The CMR Replacement is the critical facility, just as pit production is the critical production mission," Coghlan said.
Since Rocky Flats' closure, the federal government has made numerous attempts to build a new plutonium factory. Each effort failed because of concerns over how much it would cost and whether it was needed.
Faced with those problems, D'Agostino decided last year to abandon the idea of a new factory and do the work at Los Alamos, partly in a 1970s-era plutonium building and partly in the new CMR Replacement.
Lab and National Nuclear Security Administration officials say the CMR Replacement is about more than plutonium manufacturing.
"We need (the CMR Replacement) regardless of whether we build any warheads at all, ever," said Bob Smolen, deputy director of the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Phase one of the CMR's replacement is already under construction, a 225,000-square-foot building that is primarily office space with some modest laboratory space for working with radioactive materials.
But to truly replace the old CMR, lab officials are planning a second phase that could cost more than $2 billion, with much more extensive plutonium handling and storage capabilities. Decisions on that second phase lie at the heart of the current debate.
Among other jobs done in the old CMR that need a new home in the yet-to-be built second phase, according to the agency, are nuclear nonproliferation studies, nuclear power plant fuel research and studies of how existing U.S. nuclear weapons age.
Congressional critics disagree. In a report last year, members of a House subcommittee concluded that the second phase of the new CMR building "has no coherent mission to justify it" other than building new pits.
Making pits at Los Alamos rather than building a large new factory for the job might sound like exactly what the agency's critics asked for. Two of those most vocally opposed to the current plan— Coghlan and Greg Mello of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group— argued in hearings held in 2002 that Los Alamos could meet U.S. nuclear weapons production needs, eliminating the requirement for a large new factory.
At the time, both opposed building bombs at all. But they said that if plutonium production is needed for the future U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, Los Alamos could do the job because of existing plutonium capabilities.
In recent interviews, both argued that Los Alamos should not get the pit-making job because weapons manufacturing is not needed at all.
Mello said that whatever pits might be needed for future U.S. nuclear weapons could be obtained by removing them from old, dismantled bombs.
Reusing bomb parts rather than building new ones sends a much better message to other countries at a time when we are trying to prevent nuclear proliferation, Mello said.
"Diplomatically, it's a product that you can, with honor, take to the world," he said.
The NNSA, in a report published in December, rejected pit reuse, saying it would prevent the development of new weapons with improved safety features and greater reliability.
Martz argues that building a modest nuclear weapons manufacturing capability will, in the long run, help nuclear disarmament.
Reducing the size of the current U.S. nuclear stockpile, he argued, can only be done if there is a backup capability to build new bombs if needed. Without the confidence such a capability would provide, he said, we would need to retain a much larger arsenal of existing weapons.
Open for opinions
The battle over CMR and its role in this week's hearings reflects a broader reality about the politics of nuclear weapons.
Major decisions about U.S. nuclear weapons policy tend to be made in Washington, D.C., in classified policy reviews and in congressional budget processes that are largely closed to the public.
That leaves hearings like this week's in New Mexico as one of the only forums for the public to try to influence U.S. nuclear weapons policy.
The National Environmental Policy Act requires environmental studies of federal government actions, including public hearings.
The problem is that the hearings' legal focus is narrow: in this case, what the environmental impact of building new nuclear weapons would be, rather than whether they should be built at all.
"To some extent, the (environmental impact study) process is a parallel universe," Mello said.
If past experience is any indication, that fact will not dampen the enthusiasm brought to the hearings— weapons opponents seizing on one of the rare opportunities to protest government policies, and by government officials trying to explain them.
"The (National Environmental Policy Act) process is political theater on both sides," said Mello, a veteran of many such hearings. "It engages the attention of the public."
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