Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
Federal officials will unveil a proposal today to make Los Alamos National Laboratory the nation's center for nuclear weapons plutonium research, consolidating work now done at other sites around the country.
The proposal, to be unveiled at a news conference in Oak Ridge, Tenn., lays out a road map for the future of the nation's nuclear weapons research and manufacturing complex.
“We believe that Los Alamos will, in fact, be the nation's center of excellence for plutonium,” Robert Smolen, head of the nuclear weapons program at the National Nuclear Security Administration, said in an interview.
But the proposed designation comes as lab and federal officials scramble to provide the necessary lab space to do the work.
Los Alamos's 56-year-old plutonium laboratory, which government nuclear safety experts have called a “significant risk” to workers and the public, will have to last a few years longer, federal and lab officials have concluded.
Construction of a replacement has been delayed, so a plan completed by the lab in August calls for continued nuclear operations in parts of the old lab for as long as a decade. The lab's managers have significantly reduced the amount of work in the building, and say they plan to make further reductions. But they say its capabilities are still needed to support the lab's work on nuclear weapons and other nuclear-related projects.
Completed in 1952, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building, known as “CMR,” is older than many of the people who work in it. Smolen noted in an interview that the building was opened the same year he was born.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board sent a letter to the National Nuclear Security Administration last October complaining that the CMR “in its current condition poses significant risks to workers and the public.” An earthquake on a recently discovered fault beneath the building could lead to a radiation leak, the Safety Board concluded.
Lab officials have been trying in one way or another to upgrade or replace the CMR for two decades. The latest effort — construction of a $2 billion replacement — faces an uncertain future. Members of the House of Representatives last summer tried to kill the replacement project entirely. That effort died when Congress failed to pass a budget for 2009, but a repeat of the fight over the project is expected again next year.
The pending designation of Los Alamos as the nation's center for nuclear weapons plutonium research, development and manufacturing has added urgency to the issue, because CMR and its replacement are central to that work, officials say.
Given uncertainties about when the replacement building will be completed, Los Alamos nuclear program managers submitted a plan in August to reduce some operations in the old building, but to continue work in the aging building until its replacement is completed — something officials acknowledge may not happen until 2020 or later.
“We're preparing to keep it running as long as necessary,” said Chris James, the Los Alamos official managing efforts to keep the old building in operation.
Smolen acknowledged that the concerns about the building's safety raised by the Safety Board are real, but said the chances of the type of accident that would lead to a leak are remote.
Located in the heart of the lab, the CMR is a concrete complex of structures built between 1948 and 1952. Its labs contain equipment needed for the highly specialized job of working with plutonium and other similarly radioactive materials.
Only 40,000 square feet of its 150,000 square feet of lab space are now in use, James said in an interview. What can be moved out of CMR has been, James said.
Given the problems at the old building, federal officials have asked the lab to come up with a “plan B,” laying out what would be needed to abandon the old building entirely. “We're just saying, `If we had to do this, what would our emergency plan be?'” Smolen said. The problem, according to Smolen, is that the other lab spaces at Los Alamos capable of working with plutonium and other dangerous radioactive materials are already full.
“We're looking at options to try to move everything we possibly can out of CMR to another facility, but we have limited ability to do that,” Smolen said.