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«MODERNIZING THE September 2013 NUCLEAR SECURITY ENTERPRISE Observations on NNSA’s Options for Meeting Its Plutonium Research Needs GAO-13-533 ...»

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United States Government Accountability Office

Report to the Committee on Armed

Services, U.S. Senate


September 2013



Observations on

NNSA’s Options for

Meeting Its Plutonium

Research Needs


September 2013



Observations on NNSA’s Options for Meeting Its Plutonium Research Needs Highlights of GAO-13-533, a report to the Armed Services Committee, U.S. Senate Why GAO Did This Study What GAO Found The National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Los Alamos National Nuclear weapons are an essential part of the nation’s defense strategy. NNSA Laboratory’s (LANL) April 2012 study (1) identified general options for meeting manages the nation’s nuclear weapons the plutonium research needs of NNSA—a separately organized agency within stockpile and carries out research to the Department of Energy (DOE)—during the several-year gap created by the help extend the life of existing deferral of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) weapons. The core of a nuclear nuclear facility and (2) included limited information on costs and health risks. The weapon requires plutonium—a man- study noted that the level of plutonium research necessary to support the nuclear made radioactive element—to create a weapons life extension programs is affected by the planned schedule of the life nuclear explosion. NNSA’s LANL in extension programs, the number of pits that will be needed under the programs, New Mexico houses key plutonium and the number of pits that will need to be manufactured versus re-used, all of facilities needed for research for which have uncertainties. According to the April 2012 study, one option for nuclear weapons life extension meeting NNSA’s plutonium research needs is to relocate analytical chemistry programs and other missions. In 2005, and materials characterization capabilities among facilities at LANL, which will NNSA approved construction of CMRR require upgrades costing roughly $480 million to $820 million. A second option is to rep

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Page 1 GAO-13-533 Plutonium Research Options components; (3) installs the components in the weapons; and (4) certifies that the changes do not adversely affect the safety and reliability of the weapons. NNSA uses science-based activities, such as computer simulations and laboratory analyses, to carry out this mission. The life extension programs require a coordinated effort among NNSA’s three national weapons laboratories, four production facilities, and one support site—collectively known as the nation’s Nuclear Security Enterprise. Each of these facilities is managed and operated by contractors, called management and operating (M&O) contractors. Of these facilities, the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico houses most of the nation’s capabilities for plutonium research in support of the nuclear weapons mission. In addition, LANL’s scientists and technicians also perform research on plutonium to support other missions, such as conducting research on recycling plutonium for use as fuel in commercial nuclear reactors.

One of the key plutonium facilities at LANL is the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility (CMR). This facility has unique capabilities for performing analytical chemistry, material characterization, and research and development related to plutonium. 3 This includes activities that support the manufacturing, development, and surveillance of nuclear weapons pits; programs to extend the life of nuclear weapons in the stockpile; and nuclear weapon dismantlement efforts. Analytical chemistry in particular is needed to support the production of pits. The CMR was built in 1952 and is not sustainable in the long term because of its aging infrastructure and because it sits on a seismic fault line, raising concerns about the effect of earthquakes on the safety and security of plutonium used for research or stored at the facility.4 To address these concerns, in 2005 NNSA approved construction of a new facility at LANL called the For the purposes of this report, we are using the term plutonium research to include research and development, analytical chemistry, materials characterization, and other support capabilities for plutonium manufacturing operations.

LANL first assessed the currently known seismic risks in the late 1990s. At the time, DOE decided to continue operations at CMR using a safety analysis designed for nuclear facilities with limited operational lives. In order to keep operating under this safety analysis, LANL developed a strategy for minimizing risks at CMR, which included, among other things, closing several wings considered most at risk, improving safety controls, and reducing the amount of plutonium in the facility. DOE, then NNSA, has continued to operate CMR under this interim safety basis since 1998, but NNSA has committed to transferring all plutonium operations out of CMR by 2019 and then begin decommissioning activities.

Page 2 GAO-13-533 Plutonium Research Options Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) nuclear facility.5 The CMRR nuclear facility was to be built to current seismic standards and would modernize LANL’s plutonium support capabilities, including research. NNSA plans to continue operations in the CMR until about 2019, when it expected to complete the transfer of operations from the CMR to existing facilities, including the planned CMRR. In March 2012, we reported that NNSA’s selected design for the CMRR nuclear facility, which at 22,500 square feet of laboratory space, was too small to meet all stockpile and other plutonium-related research needs.6 However, it is now unclear when or if the CMRR nuclear facility will be built, which may lead to insufficient capabilities to meet LANL’s plutonium research requirements. In February 2012, NNSA announced that it had decided to defer CMRR nuclear facility construction for at least 5 years.

Since then, NNSA officials have announced that they are seeking alternatives to the CMRR nuclear facility that would provide the capabilities planned for the CMRR nuclear facility using existing infrastructure. NNSA officials have stated they are now reviewing concepts that could deliver incremental capability by the mid-2020s. One such concept is a modular facility that NNSA officials assert can be built in phases and will have the flexibility to support potential future changes in mission. The CMRR’s estimated costs had increased 6-fold from an estimated high of $975 million in 2005 to an estimated high of $5.8 billion in 2010.7 NNSA officials stated that their decision to defer construction of the CMRR nuclear facility was intended to free up funds for other higher priority projects, including a Uranium Processing Facility in Tennessee.

According to NNSA officials, with the 5-year delay, the CMRR nuclear facility may not be completed until the late-2020s at the earliest, The CMRR included both a radiological laboratory, which could manage only small amounts of plutonium, and a nuclear facility, where the bulk of plutonium-related research was to be performed. This report focuses primarily on the nuclear facility.

GAO, Modernizing the Nuclear Security Enterprise: New Plutonium Research Facility at Los Alamos May Not Meet All Mission Needs, GAO-12-337 (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 26, 2012).

Nominal dollars.

Page 3 GAO-13-533 Plutonium Research Options potentially creating a gap in the nation’s plutonium research capabilities.8 In particular, the delay in establishing new plutonium research capabilities could affect LANL’s ability to manufacture pits for nuclear weapons.

NNSA has estimated that it needs to be able to ramp up its capabilities to manufacture about 30 pits each year by 2021 to meet expected life extension program requirements.

In planning to avoid a potential insufficiency in plutonium research capabilities beginning in 2019 when the CMR is to cease operations, in February 2012, NNSA tasked the M&O contractor operating LANL with assessing the potential effects of deferring the construction of the CMRR nuclear facility. NNSA asked the M&O contractor to propose options for NNSA to maintain continuity in analytical chemistry and materials characterization capabilities using existing infrastructure. If the CMRR nuclear facility were to be built, it would not become operational until at least the late-2020s, assuming a 5-year delay. NNSA officials stated that if they built another facility as an alternative to the CMRR nuclear facility, it would likely take at least through the mid-2020s to plan and construct.

On April 16, 2012, the contractor completed and issued LANL’s study,9 also called the 60-day study, which discusses potential capabilities at LANL and other sites that could be used to meet NNSA’s plutonium research needs. In accordance with the tasking letter from NNSA, the April 2012 study did not discuss longer-term options, such as the construction of the CMRR nuclear facility or other alternatives.

In light of concerns about maintaining the nation’s plutonium research capabilities for both its nuclear weapons stockpile and other plutonium research missions, the Senate Armed Services Committee Report, accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year We reported in March 2012 that the CMRR nuclear facility had initially been planned to be completed between 2013 and 2017, but that it was delayed until 2020 due to cost increases, reflecting a 3- to 7-year delay. See GAO-12-337. With the 5-year deferral, assuming no further delays, NNSA officials stated that the CMRR nuclear facility could be completed in approximately 2029, but some critics of NNSA we spoke to stated that, based on NNSA’s prior project management experience, the CMRR nuclear facility likely could not have been built within NNSA’s stated time frames and that further delays could be expected.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos Initial Response for Maintaining Capabilities with Deferral of the CMRR Nuclear Facility Project, (Los Alamos, N.M.: Apr.

16, 2012).

Page 4 GAO-13-533 Plutonium Research Options 2013, directed that we review LANL’s April 2012 study.10 This report examines: (1) the options for meeting NNSA’s plutonium research needs identified in LANL’s April 2012 study, including their costs and health risks, if any, and (2) the potential impacts of those options on NNSA’s plutonium research for the nuclear weapons stockpile and other plutonium research missions.

To examine the options for meeting NNSA’s plutonium research needs identified in LANL’s April 2012 study, including costs and risks to health, we reviewed the April 2012 study as well as pertinent budget, planning, and analytical documents from NNSA and LANL. We interviewed NNSA officials and the M&O contractor to discuss the options and to better understand other facilities that could be used to meet plutonium research needs. We interviewed Department of Defense (DOD) officials to gain a better understanding of nuclear weapons stockpile requirements and DOD’s input into the options identified in LANL’s April 2012 study. We reviewed pertinent documents from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a statutorily-created body that reviews safety issues for certain NNSA and DOE facilities, and we interviewed board officials to discuss potential safety issues with LANL’s plutonium facilities. To examine the potential impact of the options identified in LANL’s April 2012 study on NNSA’s plutonium research for the nuclear weapons stockpile and other mission areas, we reviewed pertinent documents from NNSA and LANL.

We interviewed NNSA officials and the M&O contractor to discuss the impacts, if any, of using the facilities identified in LANL’s April 2012 study.

We also interviewed former DOE officials and former LANL contractor officials to understand the history of the CMRR and reviewed documents and interviewed representatives from the JASON Program Office to gather other perspectives on NNSA and its plutonium science mission.11 Appendix I describes our objectives, scope, and methodology. We conducted this performance audit from October 2012 to September 2013 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.

Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain Senate Report 112-173 for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 directed GAO to report by January 31, 2013. Sen. Rep. No. 112-173 at 282 (2012). The Senate Report directed us to review NNSA’s proposed plutonium strategy, the options for which were initially outlined in the April 2012 study. On January 31, 2013, we reported our preliminary findings to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

JASON is a scientific advisory group that provides consulting services to the U.S.

government on matters of defense science and technology.

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In 2004, NNSA evaluated three different possible laboratory space • sizes for the CMRR nuclear facility—22,500, 31,500, and 40,500 square feet—and selected the smallest option, reporting that cost was the primary driver of the decision.15 In 2006, an independent business case analysis validated the need • for the CMRR nuclear facility, but it concluded that an additional 9,000 square feet of laboratory space could allow for contingency in the event of changing requirements.

In 2008, as part of a complex-wide review, NNSA issued a study that • revalidated the need for the CMRR nuclear facility based on program requirements, the capabilities within the facility, and its size of 22,500 square feet.

In 2010, NNSA estimated that the CMRR nuclear facility would cost • from $3.7 to $5.8 billion—a nearly 6-fold increase from the initial estimate—and that construction would be complete by 2020—a 3- to 7-year delay.

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