War/Security

Spirit of boondoggle departs quashed Los Alamos project, finds new one to possess

The construction of an expensive new plutonium pit facility has been abandoned. Will it be replaced a collection of smaller buildings?

Thanks in large part to lawsuits filed by the Los Alamos Study Group, last year the Obama administration halted the construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The research for which it was earmarked was  on plutonium pits, which is where the chain reaction of a nuclear weapons occurs. Even if you believe in nuclear weapons, the need for new pits is nonexistent because they’re noted for their longevity.

How difficult it is to discontinue researching and manufacturing plutonium pits is a microcosm for how the nuclear weapons-industrial complex itself endures. In February at Global Security Newswire, Elaine Grossman reported that, without the CMRR-NF, Los Alamos would

… instead permanently parcel out work to an array of smaller buildings. [The] institution’s director said. … “I’m concerned that in the current fiscal crisis, it may no longer be practical to plan and build very large-scale nuclear facilities,” Charles McMillan, who heads the New Mexico research site, said at a three-day conference on nuclear deterrence in Arlington, Va. “A new path forward is needed.”

On May 7, a Los Alamos Study Group [LASG] press release stated:

After more than a year since a halt to new funding was announced for [the CMRR-NF], a few details about the latest plan to construct a large-scale “pit” factory complex have begun to emerge.

Note that McMillan’s use of the phrase “very large-scale nuclear facilities” referred to the two main buildings of the planned CMRR-NF. The complex that LASG refers to is smaller buildings, as Ms. Grossman reported. More from the press release:

It is now clear that the “interim” “plutonium sustainment” plan [in lieu of the CMRR-NF – RW] of last year is but the first part of a much larger, multibillion dollar plan spanning approximately two decades, which could easily exceed CMRR-NF in final scope, cost, and possibly in size.

The new plan aims not just to replace the capabilities once envisioned for … CMRR-NF but also to supplement or replace some the most dangerous and demanding capabilities of LANL’s large main plutonium facility.

This year’s plan is certainly much larger than the … “interim” plan … in pit production capacity, physical scale, environmental disruption, cost, and duration [and] includes everything in the “interim plan” plus construction of underground laboratory and production “modules” connected by “tunnels” to the [large main plutonium facility].

Furthermore, states LASG Director Greg Mello:

“There are as yet no firm mission requirements, no project definition, no total estimated cost, no requested line item, no analysis of alternatives, no environmental impact statement [EIS], and no schedule for this project. Despite these deficiencies, despite wasting $500 M and ten years on the last plan, and despite NNSA’s abysmal management record, the agency now claims that hundreds of millions of dollars must be spent each year, starting right now, to get this ‘non-project project’ going.”

Mello then hints at how difficult it is to put the nail in the coffin of these projects. Like monsters or slashers in horror movies, they have a discouraging habit of rising up like phoenixes just when you think you’ve killed them dead.

“No U.S. warhead requires new pits, so none of this is about maintaining warheads. Pit aging is not even mentioned in the April 8 letter as a driver for this project.”

What purpose would new plutonium pits serve then? From the press release again.

The need for new pit production is tied to these two proposed Life Extension Projects (LEPs), which congressional and administration officials have described to us as, essentially, new warheads:

• A proposed W78/W88 “interoperable” Air Force/Navy warhead for land-based and sea-based missiles. Depending on the design chosen and the size of the “build,” [it] might require pit production.

• The proposed “Long-Range Stand-Off” (LRSO) missile warhead [which] too might require pit production.

The spirit of boondoggle flees the dying host of one project, only to seek out another to possess. We can never truly drive a stake may never be drive into nuclear weapons until the Unholy Trinity of waste, pork, and campaign financing is exorcised from the body politic.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

3 replies »

  1. those of us on the progressive side tend to reflexively defend govt, even as those on the other tend to reflexively condemn it, but we forget that all bureaucracy is breathtakinglingly self serving. as years and years of research have shown, the only objective of organizations is to prolong the life of the organization.

    • Whether bureaucracy is self-serving or not, it is also critical to the functioning of the government. Any organization needs outside monitoring and rules/regulations by which it has to function, as well as periodic housecleaning, but let’s not assume that bureaucracy is automatically good or bad.

      The larger an organization is and the larger its responsibilities are, the more bureaucracy is necessary for it to function. And there are precious few organizations with greater responsibilities than the federal government of the United States.

      • Bureaucracies are necessary evils. The trick is to keep them as responsive as possible.

        I was reading an analysis some time back on Iraq – heck, it may have been a review of something here, but I can’t recall. Anyway, it made the point that a stable bureaucracy is a necessary precursor to functioning democracy. Bureaucracy, I guess, mediates against concentration of power in the hands of a despot and provides a foundation upon which to build the superstructures of democracy.