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DOE Eyes New Plutonium Strategy Amid Changes at Livemore Lab

September 19, 2013
IHS The Energy Daily - George Lobsenz

With the Energy Department planning to outline a new plutonium strategy in its fiscal year 2015 budget, the operator of DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is moving to restore or preserve operational capabilities needed for new warhead refurbishment and special nuclear material missions, according to recently released documents and a congressional audit released last week.

The potential use of the California lab for plutonium-related operations has prompted protests by a Livermore watchdog group, which says DOE is planning to bring nuclear warhead cores to the facility even though the department recently removed special nuclear material from the lab due to security concerns.

The changes at Livermore come as the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), DOE's semi-autonomous nuclear weapons agency, is considering options for maintaining critical plutonium capabilities following the planned shutdown of the aging Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2019 due to earthquake safety risks.

In a report released September 11, the Government Accountability Office, (GAO), the auditing arm of Congress, said NNSA is considering revamping facilities at Los Alamos or shifting operations or nuclear materials to other DOE sites to carry out certain plutonium research and production missions until still-undetermined replacement facilities for the CMR can be built at Los Alamos.

The GAO report said Livermore was the only site that could carry out a wide range of plutonium research and testing missions that are now performed only at Los Alamos' CMR facility.

And the report said that with the Obama administration's decision last year to delay construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility for five years, NNSA faces major questions about where it will carry out plutonium operations now conducted at the 1950's-vintage CMR.

GAO said NNSA officials believe the CMRR facility cannot be completed until 2029 at the earliest and that the agency was considering and alternative plan to develop "modular" plutonium facilities at Los Alamos that could be scaled to produce the number of plutonium pits ultimately determined to be necessary to maintain the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal.

However, the GAO report made clear that NNSA had no clear strategy at present for carrying out critical plutonium missions in the interval between closure of the CMR and development of new modular facilities or the long-delayed CMRR project which has raised budget concerns in the administration and Congress due to its estimated $5.8 Billion price tag.

GAO said NNSA has conducted only preliminary evaluations of the costs and risks of shifting plutonium operations now performed at the retiring CMR to other buildings at Los Alamos or other DOE sites.

GAO said an April 2012 study done by Los Alamos National Security LLC (LANS), the contractor that operates Los Alamos for the DOE, concluded that relocating analytical chemistry and materials characterization capabilities among facilities at Los Alamos would require upgrades costing roughly $480 million to $820 million and potentially disrupt other plutonium operations.

GAO said the April 2012 study did not include any estimated costs for the option of relocating some plutonium research capabilities to other sites.

In sum, the GAO report said: "The information in the Aril 2012 study was not sufficient for meaningful assessment of the costs associated with any of the options for meeting NNSA's plutonium research needs identified in the study."

GAO recommended that DOE reassess its plutonium needs given the uncertainties that had developed with the CMRR project and questions about the future size of the nation"s nuclear weapons stockpile and what plutonium manufacturing capabilities are needed to support it. In particular, it said a reevaluation is clearly necessary because much had changed since DOE had last validated the need for the CMRR in 2008.

GAO said NNSA officials agreed in principle with the recommendation and indicated DOE would provide a path forward on a plutonium strategy in its fiscal year 2015 budget.

"NNSA noted that it has begun an evaluation of options for the plutonium strategy to inform the fiscal year 2015 budget request," GAO said. "NNSA added that it believes that the results of this effort will be responsive to our recommendation."

While providing no other detail on the focus of NNSA's evaluation, GAO said the other DOE sites considered for plutonium operation in the April 2012 report by Los Alamos included New Brunswick Laboratory, located at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois; Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina; Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the analytical laboratory at DOE's Hanford site in Washington; Idaho National Laboratory; Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee; and the Livermore Lab, located in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Of those sites, GAO said only Livermore was capable of carrying out both the analytical chemistry and materials characterization missions now conducted at the CMR.

The GAO report comes amid disclosures that some analytical and testing capabilities at Livermore are being restored or preserved by the lab operators, Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC (LLNS), a consortium led by Bechtel and the University of California, which also are the two lead partners of LANS, the Los Alamos contractor.

A June 21 report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNSFSB), which oversees safety at DOE sites, says so-called "Shaker" testing capabilities at Livermore were being restore, reversing a previous decision to end such operations.

Tri-Valley CAREs, a local antinuclear group, charged in an August 2 press release that the refurbished Shaker apparatus is approved to operate with up to five kilograms of fuel-grade plutonium-enough to handle a nuclear bomb core, which needs between two to four kilograms of weapons grade plutonium.

"The lab claims the refurbishment was needed on the equipment that had gone largely unused for years, in order to prepare for "potential future operations," the group said. "This is cause for concern because it suggests the lab is paving the way for plutonium bomb cores to arrive from Los Alamos for testing in the Shaker."

A July 12 report by the DNFSB's site representative at Livermore is even more explicit about the potential for new warhead testing at Livermore, saying LLNS met with NNSA's Livermore Field Office (LFO) to talk about the need to perform certain testing in the lab's Superblock plutonium facility to support life extension programs for warheads.

"[S]enior contractor program managers briefed LFO on the potential need for certain engineering, environmental and surety tests to be performed in the Superblock in support of upcoming life extension programs," the DNFSB report said. "The contractor noted that while National Nuclear Security Administration headquarters has not decided on the need for the tests or where to perform the, the capabilities to perform them ought to be maintained in the safety bases at [Livermore]."

The DNFSB report suggested LFO officials saw significant obstacles to such operations from security issues and environmental review requirements, saying: "the LFO manager emphasized that security considerations and National Environmental Policy Act coverage were greater impediments to re-establishing the capabilities at [Livermore]."

Tri-Valley CAREs raised the same issues, saying such operations would appear to go against previous DOE decisions to remove large amounts of weapons-usable plutonium from Livermore because the lab had security vulnerabilities due to its location in a busy urban area.

"Livermore lab previously lost its high security status and is no longer authorized to handle, test and store nuclear bomb-usable quantities of plutonium like those that would be used in the Shaker," the group said. "It is unclear whether DOE plans to grant itself a variance in order to do this testing. Meanwhile, there has also been no National Environmental Policy Act review of this agency project."

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