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New Los Alamos Chem Lab Advances

The federal government has released $47 million toward a long-planned plutonium research lab at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a project Los Alamos officials say is vital, but which nuclear watchdogs contend only positions the U.S. to build more nuclear weapons.

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The federal government has released $47 million toward a long-planned plutonium research lab at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a project Los Alamos officials say is vital, but which nuclear watchdogs contend only positions the U.S. to build more nuclear weapons.

The building would replace an aging lab where scientists analyze samples of plutonium and other radioactive materials.

The current structure was built more than 50 years ago and upgraded earlier this decade at a cost of $90 million. About half of it has been shut down, largely because Los Alamos does not want to make further upgrades.

The Dept. of Energy late last year approved a program limiting the most dangerous nuclear material to Los Alamos and four other sites, reflecting a significant decline in the number of warheads the United States maintains and an expectation of more reductions.

Greg Mello of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group contends the National Nuclear Security Administration can maintain the safety of the nuclear arsenal even without the lab's Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) building.

The real impetus for the new building, he believes, is that the current one "has aged to the point it cannot house NNSA's ambitions for the future."

Mello said CMRR would position Los Alamos to make large numbers of new plutonium pit designs--the triggers of nuclear weapons.

"We view this building as a grotesque misallocation of taxpayer money and a poke in the eye to our disarmament obligations," he says.

Los Alamos officials say they need the replacement to tell what makes up materials. Plutonium, for example, contains impurities, requiring samples to be tested and retested.

CMRR is not just about plutonium, project manager Rick Holmes says. "My scope for this project is not to expand capabilities but to replace existing capabilities."

A host of elements for purposes ranging from biomedicine to geology need to be studied and if Los Alamos wasn't doing pit production, CMRR would be needed for other science, Holmes said.

"The size isn't driven by numbers (of weapons) in the stockpile. If we want to have a scientist who understands plutonium or americium in 50 years, we need a place to do the science," he says.

DOE and Los Alamos officials say it would cost too much to upgrade the current metallurgy structure compared to building a smaller, safer and more efficient one.

"It's substantially harder to modify an existing house than to build a new one," Holmes says. "You always end up compromising something."

There's no exact cost figure for CMRR, but a U.S. Senate report last year estimated it at $2.6 billion--more than five times the initial estimate of about $500,000.

"As time passes, things don't get cheaper," Holmes says.

The price tag must await a final design, which cannot be done until completion of an ongoing national nuclear posture review. The Pentagon began work in April on the report on threats and deterrent capabilities. It's due next year.

Mello said the expense of CMRR "is a commitment to a particular vision for Los Alamos National Laboratory," one that lays the groundwork for an expanding nuclear program and increases the relative importance of producing plutonium pits over other lab programs.

Holmes said Congress decides funding priorities, adding, "Somehow we found $700 billion for the TARP program," the official name of the stimulus package.

The just-released $47 million is part of the project's second phase. The money will continue preliminary design work and will buy equipment for CMRR labs and the laboratory portion of the project's first phase, a related $199 million office building.

Last month marked the completion of much of that first building, which includes offices for up to 350 people and 19,500 square feet of laboratory space.

Equipment is being installed and Holmes said people would move into offices in the fall of 2011 and start radiological experiments in the laboratory section in 2013.

Mello said labs in the office building more than replace what the old structure had, but Holmes said they're not sufficient for all the work Los Alamos performs.

For example, labs in the office building are allowed to have only 8.4 g of plutonium, about a thimble's worth, for experiments. Holmes said sample preparation and materials characterization work require larger amounts, making CMRR necessary.

Source: The Associated Press, Sue Major Holmes