A Second LookOne of the most interesting congressional hearings in recent memory regarding the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) nuclear weapon complex took place on March 17, 2009 before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development. Frank Young, this blog’s convener, saw the hearing coming and alerted many of us that the hearing would be webcast. I was there; my wife and co-conspirator Trish captured the webcast in a RealPlayer file which you can download here (229 MB). The written testimony is posted on the committee web site (all pdfs):
Thomas D'Agostino, Administrator, NNSA
Richard Garwin, IBM Labs, Former Chairman, State Department Arms Control and Nonproliferation Advisory Board (and designer of Ivy Mike, 1952)
Philip Coyle, Former Associate Director, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Everet Beckner, Former Deputy Administrator, Defense Programs, NNSA
A.J. Eggenberger, Chairman, Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board
As of this morning the original post had collected some 58 comments. One commenter picks up on something in Ev Beckner testimony, but that’s the extent of the comments on what the speakers said or wrote. Meanwhile press articles (in the Albuquerque Journal and Washington Post) captured mostly only what D’Agostino said, ignoring Coyle, Garwin, and Eggenberger entirely.
What’s not registering is that neither Garwin nor Coyle, and not really Ev Beckner either, support D’Agostino’s super-expensive plan for the nuclear weapons complex. How can NNSA pay for it all? The general consensus on Capitol Hill seems to be: they can't. So what will NNSA give up? As far as I can tell, nobody knows. Employees, one supposes, and at least some of its grandiose plans.
Garwin suggested the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Nuclear Facility at LANL was unnecessary, or at least should not proceed prior to a measure of clarity about future stockpile needs. He emphasized taking care of the people first – the real nuclear weapons complex, in his view.
Coyle urged an even broader re-think, given that NNSA’s workload has been predicated until now on building replacement warheads plus life-extension programs (LEPs) plus maintaining pre-LEP warheads, all for a bigger and more diverse stockpile than anybody thinks we will have in 5 or 10 years.
These and related issues obviously affect LANL a great deal. The CMRR, a $2.6 billion project at last ken (including CMR demolition), is the largest capital project in LANL’s history by some large factor. (What factor, I wonder? How would Antares stack up? Doesn’t Antares dwarf the probably-never-to-be-finished-and-working DARHT?) With the first CMRR building -- the cheap one -- nearly done, should NNSA keep going on a course it set in 2003 if not before?
The CMRR is not just big by LANL standards. It also seems to be the largest government infrastructure project in the history of New Mexico by a factor of six or so, with the possible exception of the Interstate Highway system. The CMRR would be more costly than the Golden Gate Bridge by a factor of roughly three, using constant construction dollars from the Building Cost Index maintained by Engineering News-Record.
Nuclear space in the CMRR Nuclear Facility will cost at least $89,000/sq. ft. (“more than” $2.0 billion divided by 22,500 sq. ft.). With what should such a price be compared? Egyptian pyramids? The Vatican -- kind of the Vatican of Plutonium?
Maybe we could buy it by the square inch. "Only $618!"
It’s interesting to compare this to PF-4. With 59,600 sq. ft. of Category I/II nuclear space, PF-4 was completed in 1978 for $75 million, which is $201 million in today’s construction dollars. Are we to conclude the CMRR nuclear facility will add 38% more nuclear space to TA-55 at 26 times the 1978 unit cost, assuming no cost overruns? I suppose so.
The CMRR is by no means the only runaway train in the complex. Garwin and Coyle want us to think a little more about this, and they are not alone. Their testimony is worth a read.
-Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group, www.lasg.org