The CMRR: Not Dead Yet

September 25, 2012 | 8:07 pm
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative
RLUOB Los Alamos National Laboratory

CMRR’s phase one, the radiological laboratory, also known as the part that got built.

The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) is not quite dead, but it is headed that way. The Union of Concerned Scientists already made its case for that outcome. We supported the administration’s proposed five year delay for the new nuclear weapons-related plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory. As we said, “there is no clear need for the CMRR-NF as currently proposed.” It simply isn’t needed.

Recent developments have come in a “two steps forward, one step back” slide toward delaying the facility. As we’ll see below, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) argues such delay means the eventual demise of the facility, but the administration continues to argue to the contrary.

Most recently, two steps toward delay came with the Senate’s passage, over the weekend, of the Continuing Resolution that will fund the federal government when the 2013 fiscal year starts on October 1. The good news is that there is no money in the CR specifically for the CMRR.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying on the part of CMRR supporters. Perhaps most ominously, in June Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) organized a bipartisan letter that was signed by Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE), the chair of the strategic forces subcommittee of the Senate armed services committee, and four other Senators. The letter called on the administration to provide full funding for the CMRR.

That letter followed an earlier, more partisan letter organized by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), in which she was joined by 11 other freshman Republican senators threatening to not support any arms control treaties unless CMRR was fully funded.

In the end, these letters did not persuade Congressional appropriators, who wrote the CR. This isn’t surprising, as both the House and Senate appropriations committees supported the administration’s position by denying funding for CMRR in their FY2013 bills.

No Language Prohibiting CMRR

The bad news is that does NOT mean that the CMRR could not be funded. There is no provision in the CR or elsewhere that would prohibit using FY12 or FY13 money for the CMRR, if the administration and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) chose to do so. The CR was perhaps the last best opportunity for supporters to get funding for the CMRR, but it does not mean they are giving up.

Specifically (like every department and agency) the NNSA must submit a spending plan 30 days after the CR takes effect that says what it plans to do with the money it are allocated.

Fortunately, there are lots of indications that the NNSA has no interest in allocating any money for the CMRR.

Quite the opposite. The NNSA is disbanding the CMRR design team and is trying to spend the money that the FY12 budget devoted to the project on its alternative plutonium strategy. That strategy is the plan for plutonium work NNSA is proposing as a result of the five-year delay in the CMRR.

Objections to Reprograming

That is where the “one step back” comes in. Sen. Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services  Committee, is not happy with NNSA’s plan. On September 19, he sent a letter to the Department of Energy in which he “defers action on this [NNSA] request” to reprogram the money from the CMRR to the alternative plutonium strategy.

This creates a problem for NNSA. Whenever any government agency wants to adjust its plans and spend money somehow other than Congress first approved it for, they must get the approval of all four relevant congressional committees that handle authorization and appropriation. In this case, that is the House and Senate armed services and energy and water development committees.

The appropriations committees presumably have or will sign off happily on repurposing the FY2012 money toward the alternative plutonium strategy.

The House Armed Services Committee, however, previously took an adamant course in opposition. In their bill, they went so far as to deny ANY money for an alternative plutonium strategy unless the CMRR was fully funded. They undoubtedly would be the last player to agree to the switch.

That makes Sen. Levin and the SASC the key player. If they can be persuaded, the HASC might have a harder time standing alone.

Administration’s United Front

To make the case, I’m told that the Pentagon leadership, the NNSA, and the head of Los Alamos, Charlie McMillan, have banded together to push for the CMRR delay and the alternative plan.

Even Gen. Robert Kehler, head of U.S. Strategic Command, who has testified earlier in the year that he was satisfied with the FY13 plan but worried about the longer-term plan, seems to be growing more confident. In August, he said “I do think that we are beginning to close on a way ahead here that will have us have sufficient interim capability while we look to get the long term solution back on track. … It’s still under discussion. I think we’ve had … very good discussions about the way forward.”

Some details about the alternative plutonium plan have emerged, with initial reporting by John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal and further explanations from Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group. Sometimes called “Plan B,” the proposal includes significant upgrades to the recently-completed Radiological Laboratory, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB – photo above). That upgrade would further expand the amount of plutonium that could be worked on at the lab. A tunnel would also be added between the lab and Plutonium Facility 4 (PF-4), where pits are made. The existing vault within PF-4 would be improved. Pit needs would be met by a combination of the current production capacity at PF-4 and reuse of existing pits. All the pieces seem to be falling into place to make the weapons labs and—more importantly—the DOD happy.

But Sen. Levin’s letter, coming from someone who normally would agree with the administration, indicates concerns remain in Congress.

His letter makes a case against the CMRR delay. It states that on September 13, NNSA submitted the request to reprogram the $120 million that was appropriated for CMRR in FY12 toward the alternative plutonium strategy. It notes the estimate prepared by LANL that the alternative plutonium strategy will cost between $800 million and $1.13 billion.

Then his letter assumes that a five-year delay in CMRR will increase costs by 25% and combines that with the alternative strategy costs to get a total estimate of $5.6-$7.2 billion for the CMRR project. This increase, the letter states, could be too much to bear, noting “Pragmatically, the Committee has concluded that deferral of at least ‘five years’ is essentially a cancelation.”

His letter concludes by stating that “The Committee is willing to provide funding for the alternative plutonium strategy as long as a portion of the $120 million is utilized to reconstitute the CMRR-NF facility in support of the New START Treaty. The Committee requests a meeting with the NNSA and Executive Branch stakeholders to reverse this deferral so that the short and long term plutonium needs of this nation can be met.”

The Final Outcome

The supporters of CMRR are in a distinct minority. It is the House and Senate authorizing committees alone that support building the facility. The administration, including the Pentagon, the NNSA, the weapons labs, and the Congressional appropriations committees all support the delay.

If I were a betting man, I’d side with the appropriators and the Pentagon, as that is a fairly powerful combination that usually gets its way. But the final word is not yet spoken, and will undoubtedly await Congressional approval of the alternative plutonium plan.