By John Fleck, Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
In 1989, federal officials said Los Alamos National Laboratory's old plutonium lab was "at the end of its useful life" and launched a plan for its replacement.
That plan failed, as did another, and another after that, foundering beneath waves of uncertainty about the future of U.S. nuclear weapons.
Twenty years later, the old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building — a concrete behemoth known simply as CMR — is still in use and a replacement remains beyond the horizon. Uncertainty about U.S. nuclear weapon policy remains, and, in the meantime, workers are literally wrapping plastic around aging radioactive waste pipes to stop the leaks.
This should come as no surprise. The place has, for years, been a leaky, seismically unsafe accident waiting to happen.
"Radioactive liquid released from the Industrial Liquid Waste System is a routine source of contamination in certain parts of CMR," the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, the watchdog agency that has been trying for years to get the problems fixed, concluded in a Feb. 27 report.
But somehow we can't seem to get our act together to either replace CMR or shut it down.
The reasons go a long way toward illustrating the uncertainties facing Los Alamos and the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
In 1989, the Department of Energy told Congress that the old building was contaminated, with widespread corrosion, and asked for money to build a replacement.
A year later, Congress killed funding, saying the federal government needed to come up with an overarching plan for its nuclear arsenal and the infrastructure needed to maintain it.
In the two decades since, we have planned and replanned, formed commissions and task forces, that have never quite settled the question of what U.S. nuclear weapons are for, how many we need, and what sort of manufacturing and research infrastructure we need in response.
Assigning blame for a lack of leadership is hard. No presidential administration has ever taken the issue seriously enough to seize leadership and push for a solution. Congress has always found it easier to kick the can down the road rather than making the hard, and potentially expensive, decisions required.
In an interview about the future of the labs recently, newly elected Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., talked about the need to diversify Los Alamos' mission. I asked him what he thought ought to be done about replacing the old CMR. "That's one that I'm continuing to study," Udall told me.
Before being elected to the Senate, Udall represented Los Alamos for 10 years as a congressman. The fact that he is still studying what ought to be done about CMR does not bode well.
There are a number of paths forward. We could design and build a new generation of warheads, or work instead to extend the lives of the ones we've got. We could maintain a large arsenal, or make it far smaller, or even push toward zero nuclear weapons.
Decisions on those issues have consequences, in terms of the size of the plutonium lab at Los Alamos and a host of other issues, stretching from the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation in Tennessee to Savannah River in South Carolina to Lawrence Livermore in California.
Not deciding also has consequences. Other work is done in the old CMR, including on important nonproliferation and nuclear intelligence issues that have nothing to do with how many new nukes we might need to build. That other work has become collateral damage while we await decisions on the future of nuclear weapons.
Right now, we are — join me for the chorus — awaiting more studies.
The report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States was due out April 1 but, no surprise, has been delayed. Congress has also directed the Pentagon to produce another Nuclear Posture Review, an overarching review of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security. We've done several of these in the nearly two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the pipes at CMR are still leaking.
The late Ed McGaffigan, a congressional staffer who was one of the wisest people I've known on the interplay between politics and technical issues, put it simply back in 1990 when one of the many plans to replace the old lab died. "We just have to start over and get a sense of what they want to do at Los Alamos."
We are still waiting.