“The vastly ambitious CMRR project has greatly detracted from the attention needed to solve existing nuclear safety problems at LANL,” writes Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) in its latest newsletter. LANL, of course, is the Los Alamos National Laoratory, one of the United States’ two nuclear weapons-design laboratories. The CMRR, about which I’ve often written about in conjunction with LASG’s attempts to retard its progress, is the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility, intended to expand production of plutonium pits (where the chain reaction occurs in a nuclear weapons).

In a cruel joke at a time of supposed disarmament, the CMRR promises to be the most expensive construction project in the history of Los Alamos. As for those safety problems, Mello writes, “LANL harbors many buildings which do not meet even the optimistic seismic hazard assessment of 1995.”

In a press release, the LANL admits as much, announcing

. . . that it has self-reported to the National Nuclear Security Administration a new preliminary analysis of structural load capacities at [PF-4 plutonium processing facility]. That analysis, which incorporated new geological data and sophisticated computer modeling, showed that a large earthquake that might occur in north-central New Mexico every 2,500 years could cause significant damage to some parts of the facility.

In response, LANL’s associate director for nuclear and high hazard operations, Bob McQuinn said, “While the latest calculations revealed some new areas to improve, we will quickly incorporate those into our ongoing facility improvement activities.”

But Greg Mello says:

On 3/25/11 I spoke with a senior NNSA official in DC who offered the opinion that PF-4 would “never” meet modern seismic and safety requirements. It is not clear to me that any large-scale plutonium processing facility can be built at LANL, for any reasonable price, which does meet those standards.

Hey, look at the bright side. At least there’s no danger that Los Alamos, on a plateau in the middle of desert country, will be overcome by a tsunami.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

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