Claim: Plutonium report inherently flawed

Heinrich, Udall, Luján argue analysis fails to accurately weigh projects at sites


Members of the state's congressional delegation are pushing to keep a lucrative but controversial nuclear project in New Mexico, arguing Los Alamos National Laboratory has been given an unfair shake in a new, but not yet public, federal analysis.

Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall and Rep. Ben Ray Luján, all Democrats, wrote to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, calling the analysis, which appears to favor a site in South Carolina, a shocking and "inherently flawed" document that is inconsistent with the government's own best practices -- and a waste of the U.S. Energy Department's money and time.

Over the past three years, the National Nuclear Security Administration has been developing a 400-page review of where plutonium pit production should take place over the coming decades. The work entails building increasing quantities of pits for nuclear bombs -- grapefruit-size plutonium metal orbs used to trigger a nuclear reaction -- in a factory-style environment.

New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., appear to be the final contenders for the multibillion dollar project.

The agency's Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation office "thoroughly refuted both the process and findings" of the analysis, according to the letter.

In advance of an additional engineering analysis, expected in February, the senators and congressman wrote for Perry's "immediate attention and personal assurance that the serious shortcomings of the AoA [Alternative of Analysis] will be fully addressed" at that time.

The analysis, they said, fails to appropriately weigh the projects at various sites, inappropriately comparing the costs of building an entirely new facility at Los Alamos to remodeling an existing building at the Savannah River site.

The still-incomplete Mixed Oxide Fabrication Fuel Facility at the Savannah River Site was developed to dispose of excess plutonium by reprocessing it into fuel. But the project already has exceeded cost, and it was defunded by the Obama administration. As of 2016, the project was expected to cost more than $17 billion to complete by 2048. Repurposing the facility, and using it as a pit factory, would cost substantially less.

While the analysis has not been made available to the general public, members of Congress have been briefed on its contents and conclusions in recent weeks, and it has generated escalating political tension.

A leaked PowerPoint presentation shows that the cost of future pit production at a repurposed facility in South Carolina would cost between $1.4 billion and $5.4 billion, or no more than $6.7 billion for a new facility to be constructed. But the costs to create a new facility at Los Alamos range from $1.9 billion to $7.5 billion and would take longer to finish than a refurbished facility, between 2033 and 2038.

The document indicates Los Alamos might not be capable of producing more than 30 pits per year.

But the state's delegation took issue with the fact that the NNSA did not consider an alternative "module" structure at Los Alamos with new underground facilities that would rely on Los Alamos' existing Plutonium Facility, PF-4, to expand capacity by 2027.

"The modular approach would provide LANL a safer, more modern facility sooner than the two alternatives the AoA selected," Heinrich, Udall and Luján said, adding that this modular option was "conspicuously absent" from the analysis.

The analysis also considers a much larger quantity of pits per year: 110 pits per year versus earlier NNSA requirements of between 50 and 80. This is "a significant increase beyond the Department's stated requirements," the trio wrote.

"Making matters worse," the letter continues, "such a disruptive relocation of the plutonium mission is likely to introduce new, unpredictable risks to the safety of workers and communities into an already challenging enterprise."

Concerns about the safety of operations at PF-4 have been of heightened focus this year.

In the past few months, a number of contamination events have occurred at the facility. Detected contamination led to three closures in the building's north corridor last month and the release of radiation from a glove box -- a contained box with attached gloves -- that was being used to repackage old nuclear material.

Workers' hands and gloves also were contaminated with radiation in November, but were successfully decontaminated, according to a weekly report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent panel that advises the energy secretary.

There were two other worker-contamination events this fall, involving roughly a dozen people. And safety protocol was violated in August after workers put an excess of plutonium metal in one room, a violation of regulations that are in place to prevent an accidental runaway reaction.

The lab also is under federal investigation for an event in September when a worker entered a room with insufficient oxygen. The incident has been classified by the Department of Energy as "a near-miss to a fatality" and represented potential failures in emergency management by the lab, officials said.

The bulk of the nation's pit supply was generated during the Cold War at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, which shuttered after a FBI raid in the late 1980s revealed extensive environmental damage as a result of the work. Pit production was moved to Los Alamos, but the lab generated just 29 war-ready pits prior to 2011, when a mishandling of nuclear materials nearly caused a significant nuclear accident and led to a pause in operations at PF-4 for several years. Since work restarted in late 2015, the lab has produced just two "test" pits.

Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group and a longtime critic of the lab, said he is concerned the congressional delegates are not objective about the assessment, but it is hard to know until the document is made public.

The bottom line, Mello said, is that the U.S. doesn't need more pits.

"New pits are needed only for new warheads. We don't new warheads," he said. "That is where the delegation should have put their emphasis."

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.c­om.