.News Update 6/6/08

Safety Board Questions Seismic Planning for CMRR

June 6, 2008

Over the years, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has raised seismic concerns for existing and planned facilities for manufacturing nuclear weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). In recent reports, the Safety Board again asked whether DOE was addressing the new seismic data in their design of the nuclear facility for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Building (CMRR). Based on new information, the seismic hazard in the CMRR area was discovered to be 50% larger than geologists had previously thought.

Even while plans for new-design nuclear weapons, such as the Reliable Replacement Warhead, are on budgetary rocks in Congress, DOE continues with its "build it and they will come" approach for the proposed CMRR nuclear facility, which is designed to support plutonium pit "trigger" manufacturing. In 2004, construction costs were estimated to be $600 million, but a recent Senate Armed Services Committee report states that the CMRR will now cost $2.6 billion.

DOE's plans mandate that the design of the nuclear facility have a flexible, open floor plan to accommodate as-yet unknown future missions. In its May 30 report, the Safety Board called the design a "hotel concept." Unfortunately, the hotel concept prevents the addition of interior shear walls, which has resulted in major seismic design challenges. Shear walls are built in such as a way as to resist the horizontal forces of an earthquake.

DOE used the 1997 estimate of seismic motions for the design. They did not anticipate that the latest seismic information, particularly the vertical motions, would be in resonance with various sections of the nuclear facility. The Safety Board reported that the hotel concept has generated seismic amplifications within the CMRR facility. It is not clear whether the facility and equipment can be designed to accommodate such demands. The Safety Board said that the DOE staff "does not yet have a clear understanding of the structural behavior of the nuclear facilityÉ."

This new information raises concerns about how DOE is addressing the first phase of the CMRR, an office building with radiological laboratories, which is under construction. In March activists learned that DOE was not taking a precautionary approach to the increased seismic risk by installing seismic fasteners and ties onto the structural steel. CCNS wrote a letter to DOE about these concerns. In response, Robert Smolen, Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs, said, the "[d]esign and construction were well underway by the time the revised seismic design criteria were updated for Los Alamos in June 2007" and that the additional seismic precautions were not needed.

Nevertheless, on June 4, 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey reported a small earthquake about 45 miles north of Los Alamos and 45 miles west of Taos, registering a magnitude 3.7. It was felt in Los Alamos, Tierra Amarilla and Abiquiu.

Scott Kovac, of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, asked, "Why spend money on an possibly unneeded facility in a seismically vulnerable location to accommodate as-yet unknown future missions? Instead, we should be investing in nonproliferation, energy independence and cleanup programs at the LANL."

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