The federal government's failure to deal with aging nuclear weapons labs and plants has left “decrepit,” unsafe buildings at Los Alamos and elsewhere, according to a high-level commission chartered by Congress.
The old buildings, including a massive plutonium laboratory at Los Alamos that is nearly 60 years old, have languished as a result of “an accumulation of delayed decisions about the nuclear weapons program,” the commission, headed by former Defense Secretary William Perry, concluded.
Replacing the most troubled buildings will cost billions of dollars, and if funding is insufficient to do all the work at once, the plutonium lab at Los Alamos should be the first priority, according to the commission.
Other key recommendations include:
- Expanding the focus of the U.S. nuclear weapons labs, including Sandia and Los Alamos, to deal more broadly with national security issues, including work for the State Department, the intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security.
- Turning the National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency that runs the labs and nuclear weapons plants, into an independent federal agency. NNSA is a part of the Department of Energy, but needs to be given more autonomy to carry out its job, according to the commission.
“So long as it continues to rely on nuclear deterrence,” the commission's report concludes, “the United States requires a stockpile of nuclear weapons that are safe, secure, and reliable, and whose threatened use in military conflict would be credible.”
The commission's suggestion to broaden the nuclear weapons labs into “national security laboratories” drew concern from Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.
In a telephone interview, Bingaman said he agrees the labs should diversify. But he said that only working for national security-related agencies was too narrow a charter and that areas such as energy research should also be included.
“The labs also do a lot of nondefense work,” he said.
The report is intended to be a foundation for decisions to be made by Congress and the Obama administration during the coming year, said Morton Halperin, a member of the commission who served in the Johnson, Nixon and Clinton administrations.
Halperin and his colleagues released the report a day before today's scheduled unveiling of the Obama administration's budget request for 2010 — the first detailed look at the new administration's nuclear weapons spending priorities.
Halperin called it “astonishing” that nuclear weapons workers still spend their days in buildings dating to the 1940s.
Los Alamos officials have pushed for more than two decades to replace the lab's Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Complex, a massive lab for working with plutonium and other nuclear materials that was designed in the 1940s. Federal safety auditors say the old building is a hazard to workers and the public.
“It is just a very, very ancient building,” said C. Paul Robinson, the former head of Los Alamos' nuclear weapons program who also served as president of Sandia National Laboratories.
The latest plan, a large replacement complex with a price tag of as much as $2 billion, is on hold while the new administration reviews its nuclear weapons policies, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said during an April 10 news conference at Sandia.
Uranium work at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee is also done in an old building that the commission concludes needs replacement, with a price tag in excess of $1 billion.
While both buildings are needed, the Los Alamos project should be the priority if there is not enough money in the federal budget to do both simultaneously, the commission said.