Friday, June 18, 2010

LANL Licks More NWT Lolly

It's a predilection built upon habit as Los Alamos National Laboratory continues to devote itself to the R&D of Nuclear Weapons Technology. The NWT lolly is hard to resist for many, if not most, of those fortunate enough to qualify for a LANL job. Indeed, the lure of work at LANL brings technical staff to New Mexico from all over the United States, while the citizens of Northern New Mexico have become stuck on the generous pay checks that DOE/LANL supplies.

The game is about to become still more lucrative. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported on June 15, 2010 that LANL expects to hire ~1000 new employees to build and staff the next, and largest, phase of the Chemical, Metallurgical & Radiological Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF); the construction cost alone is expected to rise to several billion dollars. Presently, LANL employees number over 11,000.

As NM State Senator Jeanette Wallace, R-Los Alamos County, is reported to have said: "The economic impact of the work will spread beyond the local community. This is good not just for Los Alamos but for all of Northern New Mexico. We need the jobs, especially in the economy as down as it is right now."

LANL Deputy Director Isaac Richardson asserted that the existing building (CMR) is from the 1950s and needs to be updated. "If we were to not build this building, we would not be able to attract the talent to do all the other things we need to do at LANL," he said.

Of course, the CMRR-NF Facility is an integral part of DOE/NNSA's grand scheme for the future of the United States Nuclear Weapons Complex; e.g., according to which, LANL will become the national center for plutonium R&D, as well as the sole site for plutonium pit production.

There is still much controversy about this reorganization of the NW Complex, and it is uncertain to what extent Congress will continue to fund the program. See the recent article entitled, "Bunker mentality: Is NNSA digging itself into a hole at Los Alamos?" by Greg Mello, dated 26 May, 2010, in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

As Mello says: "CMRR-NF is a highly complex and utterly unique project. Preliminary design has taken seven years so far and isn't done. The U.S. has not successfully built a plutonium facility since 1978, when PF-4 opened its doors [at LANL]. An attempt to do so at Rocky Flats in the mid-1980s failed spectacularly. Despite all this, despite NNSA's poor project management record, and despite what appears to be a lack of convincing mission need, CMRR-NF is being managed as a concurrent design-build project. Under that approach, between one-half and $1 billion will have been spent on the project before preliminary design, cost estimates, and schedules have been completed."

"Pyrrhic design: The 270,000-square-foot CMRR-NF would add only 22,500-square-feet of additional plutonium processing and lab space to LANL's existing 59,600-square-feet of comparable space in PF-4, a 38 percent increase. The new labs would comprise just 8 percent of the CMRR-NF floor area. Most of the building would be occupied by utilities, ventilation, safety equipment, and by the heavy structure itself."

"The current cost of CMRR-NF lab space works out to $151,000 per square foot, or $1,049 per square inch. PF-4 cost $75 million to build in 1978 ($213 million in 2009 construction dollars). Thus, in constant dollars, CMRR-NF lab space would cost 42 times as much as LANL's existing plutonium labs did, assuming costs do not increase further."

"If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. For the past few years, the CMRR-NF project has struggled to adequately respond to 'new' seismic and safety issues. Actually, these issues were appreciated by NNSA senior management from the beginning of the project to some degree, but they were not officially accepted as applicable. LANL is underlain by a fault system that has produced three earthquakes measuring 6.5 to 7.0 on the Richter scale in the last 11,000 years. These 'new' seismic issues, along with requirements for so-called safety-class ventilation equipment that was also not initially accepted by LANL, have dramatically increased CMRR costs and are not yet fully resolved."

Meanwhile, the situation for science at LANL is not improving. As reported in the June, 2010 issue of the American Physical Society News, under the heading, "It’s a Bumpy Ride to Private Management at Los Alamos and Livermore" by Michael Lucibella and Alaina G. Levine:

"When the management of the historic Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) was transferred from the University of California to two private companies [in 2006 and 2007, respectively], many officials hailed the move as the turning over of a new leaf for the Labs. The goal of the transfer was to introduce private sector accountability into a management system seen by many in Congress and the Department of Energy as broken. However four years on, costs have swelled, red tape endures, and questions persist as to whether the transfer has benefited the Labs in the long run."

“'When I heard a company was going to run (LANL), I thought they would do it efficiently. I thought it would be good for us,' said a long-time member of the technical staff of LANL. 'But it used to be that science drove this place and everyone knew it…Now that’s gone.'”

"Interviews with current and former employees of both laboratories show shared concerns that since the facilities have become managed by a for-profit entity, science is no longer the top priority; rather, the emphasis is on generating profits through a climate of intense risk aversion. Many of those who still work with the Lab have asked to remain anonymous because of concerns of repercussions from their employers."

"One of the Lab’s former directors said that the system of governance at LANL in particular was broken in 1997 and since then has become more so. Siegfried S. Hecker served as the Director of LANL from 1986 to 1997 and is currently a research professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering, and the co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. He said the excessive security concerns, the creation of an extra level of bureaucracy, the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA), and the fact that the contract to run the lab was given to a for-profit entity, all led to the greater emphasis on risk avoidance."

“'It was difficult to get work done in 1997, and now it’s simply so difficult to get work done that it gets difficult to attract the best and brightest to the facility,' he said, 'It’s gone downhill for some time and we failed to fix it with the creation of the NNSA and the new management structure.' He added that people are now more afraid to make mistakes, contributing to the difficulty of conducting scientific work."

But then, the R&D of Nuclear Weapons Technology may not really be science at all.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

WIPP's Future Unsure

As the period for public comment winds down on NMED's proposed renewal Permit for the WIPP site (the last day of the comment period is June 28, 2010), it may be of interest to recall that the United States Government is now also contemplating a future expansion of both WIPP's size and WIPP's mandate. The following material is related to this potentially unsettling (for citizens of New Mexico) topic:

Excerpted from, "Advice for the Blue Ribbon Commission"
By Robert Alvarez | The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists | 24 March 2010

"President Barack Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future will have its first meeting this week. The commission, formed after Obama cancelled the Yucca Mountain spent nuclear fuel repository in January, is tasked with rebooting the country's five-decade-plus effort to manage its high-level radioactive waste."

"The 15-member commission includes representatives from industry, government, and academia and is co-chaired by former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and former Indiana Democratic Cong. Lee Hamilton. It's scheduled to provide interim recommendations in 18 months and a final report within the next 24 months. It will review the government's management of the nuclear fuel cycle and consider all alternatives for the storage, processing, and disposal of used nuclear fuel, high-level waste, and materials derived from nuclear activities."

[One such problematic issue is that of the disposition of high-level military waste.] "Since World War II, the production of plutonium and other nuclear material has generated about 100 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste that is stored in 237 gigantic underground tanks in South Carolina, Washington, Idaho, and New York. In 1985 the government mandated that such wastes be commingled and stored with civilian spent fuel at Yucca Mountain. With Yucca closed, community and political leaders near Washington's Hanford and South Carolina's Savannah River nuclear weapon sites are now suing to reopen Yucca and force the government to take the material. There is growing interest in placing the waste in the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), a geologic disposal site in a salt formation near Carlsbad, New Mexico that opened in 1998 for plutonium-contaminated military waste. Predictably, New Mexico's elected officials are not supportive of the idea."

"Despite local political opposition, there may be merit to exploring the potential for defense high-level waste disposal at WIPP. Unlike commercial spent fuel, more than 98 percent of the long-lived radioactive material in defense wastes, such as plutonium, has been removed. It's also roughly 10 times less radioactive and thus produces less decay heat than commercial reactor spent fuel--an important factor because decay heat can corrode waste containers and impact the geological stability of the site. That said, more research is necessary to determine if placing wastes in WIPP is a viable option."

Opinion Published in Albuquerque Journal | April 08, 2010

"WIPP Not a 'Storage' Place"
By Ron Curry, Cabinet Secretary, New Mexico Environment Department

"In response to the editorial in your paper on March 30, 'Time Right To Look at WIPP for Greater Uses,' we assert that New Mexico, more than any other state, has done its part in disposing of our nation's nuclear waste. But, changing the mission at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad by allowing high level nuclear waste at the site runs contrary to the federal government's promise to New Mexicans more than a decade ago. That promise was that the facility should dispose only of transuranic waste created by production of nuclear weapons. But, permanent disposal of the nation's nuclear waste is a national issue and the responsibility for such disposal should not be placed solely on our state."

"The editorial mentions that a federal Blue Ribbon Commission is tasked with recommending to the Department of Energy solutions for nuclear waste disposal. This commission's purpose, stated in its charter, is not to recommend locations for disposal. Although former Sen. Domenici agrees with that and states he is not advocating for any location, it is clear where he stands on this issue when he offers that "field hearings" be held at WIPP. If field hearings are conducted at WIPP, shouldn't they also be held at locations where defense-related nuclear waste was created — such as Hanford in Washington and Savannah River in South Carolina — and at commercial nuclear power plants?"

"WIPP is not a ‘storage’ site. WIPP is in fact a disposal site, and disposal is forever. However, some of the high-level waste under consideration by the commission might be more amenable to a non-permanent ‘storage’ option. For example, the solution for spent nuclear fuel must include the ability to retrieve and potentially reprocess that source, if that is the direction the United States pursues. Under that scenario, dry-cask storage at sites where waste is created may be a reasonable alternative to ‘storage’ in a repository. Options for high level waste, on the other hand, must consider permanent disposal with no intent of retrieval."

"The editorial claims that 'it's time for scientific research to have the upper hand over political considerations.' We believe science and the will of the people must be considered equally. Further, we don't agree that nuclear power necessarily weans us from foreign energy interests. The main nuclear power consortium that builds most plants worldwide is a French state-supported company with a long history of cost and schedule overruns."