Los Alamos Study Group Comments On LANL Expansion Plans


Los Alamos Study Group

Triad LLC, which manages Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), wants LANL to significantly expand in almost every way: missions, staff, construction workers, facilities (federal and leased), energy use, and transportation (of people, material — nuclear and otherwise — and waste).

Triad expects to spend $5.5 billion in capital projects – construction, basically — over the coming 5 years, and some $13 billion over the coming decade. Much of the work for the first five years is already budgeted.

On Aug. 8, Triad provided a brief overview of these plans to 700 attendees at a subcontractor forum at the Buffalo Thunder resort (snapshots from an animated regional site plan; slides). Subsequent, less-complete briefings were provided to the New Mexico Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee (August 23) and to the Los Alamos County Council (October 15).

At each of these meetings, Triad said it hoped to continue hiring in the vicinity of 1,000 new staff members per year for the next several years, or about 500 per year on a net basis. As Triad has stressed in these presentations, this expansion is putting enormous strain on local housing and highway capacities, problems exacerbated by the tendency of LANL staff to retire in Los Alamos.

This proposed LANL expansion is just part of what NNSA hopes will be a net expansion of about 20,000 federal and contractor staff across the warhead complex by 2025, with an accompanying capital investment of about $36 billion over the coming 30 years (videoquotes).

LANL’s plutonium missions are central in all these plans. These are slated to expand while acquiring an enduring industrial character that would be entirely novel in Los Alamos experience. It is a proposed transformational change not just for the lab, but also for the towns of Los Alamos and White Rock.

Industrial warhead core (“pit”) production capability, lest anyone doubt, is NNSA’s highest infrastructure priority, as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reminded readers last week (reportprecis). The President’s budget for fiscal year 2020 includes over $3 billion for this effort through 2024 (p. 17). Beyond this, “NNSA also may have to increase pit production at LANL beyond 30 pits per year…in May 2018 the Nuclear Weapons Council stated that it was essential that NNSA provide resources for surge pit production capacity in PF-4 at LANL until pit production is fully established at [the Savannah River Site]” (Ibid.)

Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act requires LANL to “implement surge efforts to exceed 30 pits per year,” as well as to have a backup plan to produce at least 80 pits per year.

The pits LANL would make are for a warhead (the W87-1) for which the NNSA laboratory in Livermore, California has lead responsibility. After the near-term completion of the B61-12 bomb and W88 alteration, LANL will have no lead responsibility for any warhead design in the 2020s – and no certain lead responsibility for any warhead thereafter. But LANL will be just getting started as a pit factory. This situation reminds me of something LANL government affairs chief Karl Braithwaite said to me in the early 1990s: “Save your breath. Livermore will be the clean lab. Los Alamos will be the dirty lab.”

In addition to its roles in pit production, plutonium pit surveillance, plutonium heat source preparation, and plutonium research, LANL’s aging plutonium facility (PF-4) is the only facility available to oxidize surplus plutonium metal in preparation for dilution and disposal. Some 26.2 metric tons of surplus metal in pits is slated for oxidation, a mission which could expand to all 43.8 MT of currently-surplus metallic plutonium.

Expansion of LANL’s plutonium processing missions will further strain LANL’s waste management capacities and hamper LANL’s halting progress in removing roughly 18,000 drums of stored transuranic waste, including drums still buried and waste above-ground at various locations. Knowledge regarding the chemical stability of these drums remains “a work in progress.”

As last week’s GAO report indicates as regards plutonium oxidation alone, NNSA’s left hand does know what its right hand is doing, let alone coordinate with it. This lack of systems engineering is even more extreme between the NNSA and DOE Environmental Management stovepipes, and between sites.

Unfortunately Triad has so far declined to share with the Los Alamos community or with the New Mexico Legislature the plans it revealed, albeit in just a glimpse, to the contracting community. As for several other legally-required planning documents, fuhgetaboutit. Why do New Mexico governments, or tribes, or citizen, need to know what LANL is planning to do?

For its part NNSA has not shared any of these plans either. NNSA has also so far declined to produce any environmental impact statement (EIS) for pit production — except at the Savannah River Site. A Programmatic EIS (PEIS) that examines the impacts of these plans nationwide, together with reasonable alternatives, and a Site-Wide EIS (SWEIS) that provides an overview of how all these expanding programs would interact with the environment and communities locally, are both badly needed.

It is not unreasonable to expect good planning, good engineering and good science from Triad. Good planning includes community participation. Good engineering includes managing risks better than LANL has ever done. Good science includes good environmental science, applied to Triad’s own proposals.

What is going on now are big ideas that have been concocted in small echo chambers – in Washington, mostly, but also among the new managers at LANL – that pay insufficient heed to the realities of today’s world, or to the environment and communities around LANL.