Lab Expected to Get New Plutonium Unit

By John Arnold and John Fleck, Staff Writers
Albuquerque Journal
Wednesday, November 9, 2005

A project to replace one of Los Alamos National Laboratory's largest and oldest buildings - an aging nuclear research facility with a history of safety problems - would receive its largest chunk of funding to date under a new Department of Energy spending plan.

A $30.5 billion Energy and Water Appropriations bill hammered out by House and Senate negotiators Monday includes $55 million for construction of a new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility.

The existing 550,000-square-foot building, located in the lab's Technical Area-3, dates back to the early 1950s and is used to test and analyze plutonium and other nuclear materials. But safety problems, including a 1996 explosion, have plagued the facility over the last decade, and lab officials say it's been expensive to upgrade and maintain.

Lab spokesman Kevin Roark said the new building will be more efficient, more secure and much smaller - about half the size of the current building.

"Really, the driver (for the new facility) was we don't need as much space. We need a facility that's cheaper to maintain, and we need a facility that's located inside an existing security perimeter," Roark said.

The new facility, to be located with other plutonium facilities in Technical Area-55, will cost an estimated $838 million, according to Sen. Pete Domenici's office. In addition to this year's pending appropriation, Domenici, R-N.M., helped secure $40 million for the project last year and $10 million the previous year.

The project is moving forward over objections from lab watchdogs, who contend the new building is not needed and that it's part of a larger strategy to increase weapons manufacturing at the laboratory.

"We shouldn't build more plutonium space," said Los Alamos Study Group executive director Greg Mello. "The additional floor space is only needed because of the desire to design new weapons, to manufacture new weapons and probably also to do research and development of novel nuclear fuels (for civilian nuclear power). We're opposed to all three of those missions. If you take away those missions you take away the need for the facility."

In addition to CMR facility funding, the DOE spending measure also includes language likely to expand nuclear weapons plutonium manufacturing at Los Alamos.

The lab is currently working on a production line to manufacture small numbers of plutonium "pits" - the radioactive cores of nuclear weapons. Current plans call for production of 10 such pits per year in 2008. The budget approved by negotiators Monday includes several directives that could expand that work substantially in the future.

The United States has not had a large-scale plutonium factory since the Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver shut down in 1989. Los Alamos has long been seen as an interim manufacturing site while DOE develops plans for a large new factory. But the 2006 budget approved by House and Senate negotiators this week cuts all money for that new factory, while directing the National Nuclear Security Administration "to undertake a review of the pit program to focus on improving the manufacturing capability at TA-55."

Domenici said that the CMR project is not directly tied to pit manufacturing.

"However, as long as the pit manufacturing mission remains at LANL, the more important the (CMR) facility is. It performs the analytical experiments on pits and other special nuclear material," he said in a written statement.

Work will begin on the CMR building's first phase - a radiological laboratory - early next year, Roark said.

The Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, which funds DOE, includes $6.43 billion for nuclear weapons spending. That's a 1.6 percent increase for the coming fiscal year.

The House approved the measure Tuesday. It now requires Senate approval and the president's signature.