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Why Spend Billions on an Unnecessary Nuclear Weapons Facility?

The CMRR Facility plans, also on LANL web site. (Photo: LANL / LANS under US Department of Energy)

By all accounts, the cold war came to an end more than 20 years ago. Gorbachev rose to power, intermediate-range missiles were eliminated, the Berlin Wall toppled and the Iron Curtain lifted. Unfortunately, it looks like no one told the Department of Energy (DOE). The DOE is planning on spending billions of taxpayer dollars on a facility in New Mexico that would enable the US to increase production of nuclear weapons components.

The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) is a multibillion-dollar money pit that lacks a clear mission, is fraught with design complications and faces ever-increasing costs. President Obama recently pointed to the nuclear arsenal as a target for budget cuts – now it's time to act. As outlined in a new report by my organization, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), CMRR-NF was first conceived a decade ago with the intention of replacing an existing Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) facility.

But cold warriors pushed to expand CMRR-NF to support the increased production of plutonium pits – key components of nuclear weapons – causing the facility's budget to spiral out of control. Back in 2001, the estimate of CMRR-NF and another building combined was $375 million. Now, CMRR-NF alone has a projected price tag of $3.7 to $5.9 billion. That doesn't include maintenance costs, which could reach up to $148 million per year – more than 15 times that of the building it is meant to replace.

In exchange for this multibillion-dollar price tag, taxpayers are going to get a facility that serves little purpose. CMRR-NF will allow DOE to increase plutonium pit production, but a growing body of scientific and policy experts believe the US doesn't need this production. In a report for the fiscal year 2008 budget, the House Appropriations Committee noted, “The CMRR facility has no coherent mission to justify it unless the decision is made to begin an aggressive new nuclear warhead design and pit production mission at Los Alamos National Laboratory.” And as Bob Peurifoy, a former Sandia National Laboratories vice president who has been involved in the design of about a dozen nuclear weapons, put it, the facility “might just sit there with nothing to do.”

Additionally, CMRR-NF undermines the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which the US and Russia ratified last February. The treaty requires that the number of strategic US nuclear warheads be reduced to 1,550 over the first seven years of the agreement. The US is not only currently above that number, but it also has an ample stockpile of plutonium pits that could be reused – at least 14,000 of them. In light of this supply, CMRR-NF – which includes a vault capable of holding the amount of plutonium in 1,500 warheads – is simply unnecessary.

There are a number of other reasons that CMRR-NF needs to be send to the chopping block. Firstly, the DOE has a history of dumping taxpayer dollars into wasteful projects. For example, the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site has gradually grown more expensive and less justifiable since its inception – after an initial cost estimate of $1.4 billion, the facility's price tag is now expected to surpass $4.86 billion.

The DOE is also behind the Uranium Processing Facility, which is currently estimated to cost between $6.5 billion and $7.5 billion – a massive jump from the 2004 estimate of between $600 million and $1.5 billion – and will most likely require further expensive design changes. Thanks to boondoggles like these, the Government Accountability Office has identified the DOE's contract management as a “high-risk” program for more than 20 years, noting in 2011, “DOE's record of inadequate management and oversight of contractors has left the department vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement.” It simply doesn't make sense to hand more money to an agency with this kind of track record.

Additionally, data show that the risk of a major earthquake occurring at LANL is considerably higher than previously thought. Given the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, these risks cannot be ignored.

Finally, for those worried that scrapping CMRR-NF would hurt job creation – put those fears aside. The facility would create only a few hundred temporary construction jobs. Zero new, permanent jobs. Even the DOE admits the building would have “little or no noticeable socioeconomic impact” on the LANL region.” Spending billions of dollars for a few temporary jobs? That's simply irresponsible.

In light of the government's desire to reduce the US deficit, a project of CMRR-NF's magnitude that lacks a coherent justification should simply not receive funding. The Obama administration should cancel CMRR-NF and zero out funding for this behemoth in the upcoming budget. If Obama fails to act, Congress should cut the funding in its next appropriations bill. In this era of fiscal constraint, the DOE cannot be allowed to act like a cold war dinosaur.

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