The CMRR-Nuclear Facility Is All About Expanding Plutonium Pit Production Capacity

In response to a question by Senator Jeff Bingaman at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on April 14, 2010, NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino stated “We will not make pits in the CMR replacement facility. We’ll make them in the existing older facility.”

That is narrowly true, but highly misleading. In fact, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Project is all about expanding plutonium pit production capabilities at the Los Alamos National Laboratory from the presently sanctioned level of 20 per year to up to 80. [Plutonium pits are the fissile “triggers” that initiate fusion in today’s modern thermonuclear weapons.] Yes, PF-4, LANL’s existing plutonium facility, performs the actual physical manufacturing of pits. However, that production cannot take place without “analytical chemistry” (AC) and “materials characterization” (MC) before production to make sure that the plutonium is weapons-grade, and extensive AC and MC sampling during production for stringent “war reserve” quality control.

It’s a mistake to get hung up on different facilities, when an integrated plutonium complex for expanded pit production capability is being created through proposed construction of the CMRR’s “Nuclear Facility” and upgrades to PF-4. It’s silly to think of them as separate facilities just because they’ll be under two different roofs. PF-4 and the Nuclear Facility will be next door to each other, linked by underground tunnel, with highly integrated operations and much exchange of special nuclear materials between them (especially given the Nuclear Facility’s planned vault for up to six metric tons of “special nuclear materials”).

The CMRR Nuclear Facility is being specifically sized to support pit production capability of 50 – 80 pits per year. An internal NNSA study of planned alternatives advocated for a “baseline version (22,500 ft2 of Pu lab space) of the CMRR-NF…, resulting in a production capacity of 50-80 ppy” [pits per year]. Independent Business Case Analysis of Consolidation Options for the Defense Programs SNM and Weapons Programs, TechSource, Inc, December 2007, p. 5-3, parentheses in the original. This “Business Case” is one of NNSA’s hundreds of reference documents for its 2008 Complex Transformation Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. [To conveniently find it, use “TechSource 2007a.”]

That 22,500 ft2 of Pu lab space is exactly what is being designed for the Nuclear Facility now. “CMRR Project Nuclear Facility… Baseline under development …. 22,500 Net Square Feet Lab Space.” CMRR Project Update, LANL, Public Meeting, Los Alamos, New Mexico March 3, 2010, 7th viewgraph.

Los Alamos National Security, LLC, the for-profit corporation that runs Los Alamos, has already been paid for installing additional equipment in PF-4 that in conjunction with the future CMRR-Nuclear Facility will expand plutonium pit production capability to up to 80 pits per year. “Build Six New W88 Pits & Install Equipment in FY 2008 to Increase Pit Capacity to 80 Pits Per Year by the Operational Date of a CMRR-Nuclear Facility – Available Fee $1,079,915 – Awarded Fee $1,079,915.” FY 2008 Performance Evaluation Report for the Los Alamos National Security, LLC’s Management and Operation of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, NNSA, p. 9.

NNSA echoes this in its FY 2010 Supplemental Stockpile Stewardship Plan. Under Key Recent Accomplishments the agency boasts of “New equipment installed as scheduled for gradual capacity increases to 80 pits per year potential by scheduled operational date for Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Nuclear Facility.” Table 1-1, NNSA/Office of Defense Programs, FY 2010 – 2014 Supplement to the Stockpile Stewardship Plan, p. 14.

In sum, suggestions or representations by NNSA and LANL that the $4.5 billion CMRR Project is not about pit production are at best half-truths. Its massive proposed “Nuclear Facility” is, in fact, all about expanded pit production capability.