Designs costly for proposed Los Alamos plutonium lab

SANTA FE – Los Alamos National Laboratory has spent about $425 million on designs for its proposed new plutonium facility without reaching the level of confidence needed to prepare a reliable budget or begin building.

The proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear has been delayed at least five years under President Barack Obama’s budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins today. The budget cut funding for the program.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that Steve Fong, a member of the federal team managing the project, said the most recent $3.7 billion to $5.8 billion estimates to build the plant still appear valid.

The government has spent about $80 million out of $200 million allocated to close out operations for the delayed facility, Fong said.

The rest of the money will be applied to other Department of Energy programs and any decision to restart the project would require new appropriations.

The Obama administration’s decision to delay the massive plutonium processing and handling building came in February and has been the subject of a series of political skirmishes. Some lawmakers on the House and the Senate armed services committees have repeatedly tried to keep the program alive despite support for the cuts from budget committee members.

A DOE plan prepared for Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., earlier this month would take back the extra $120 million for lab operations and send it back to pay for setup activities and additional plutonium capabilities in the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building.

That smaller building starts operating in November and will fill part of the gap created by the deferral of the larger nuclear facility.

A letter to Levin from a DOE official said the administration is still evaluating options for building the new plutonium lab.

Levin responded to Joanne Choi’s letter by protesting that any delay would add 25 percent to the cost and add another $1 billion in stop-gap expenses. Levin complained that the “sheer size of the cost escalation ... could lead to an inability to construct.”

At a meeting last week, the executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico challenged an apparent government presumption that new public meetings would not be required if Congress changed its mind about delaying the project.

“A budget request to Congress is going to be well in advance of any startup, so that’s the first advance,” Fong said. “To reconstitute a design team and get going, it takes years to get to where we were – it’s going to take quite some time to get up to speed again.”