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Questions swirl around $6 billion nuclear lab

Published: December 5, 2011
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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — At Los Alamos National Laboratory, scientists and engineers refer to their planned new $6 billion nuclear lab by its clunky acronym, CMRR, short for Chemistry Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility. But as a work in progress for three decades and with hundreds of millions of dollars already spent, nomenclature is among the minor issues.

Questions continue to swirl about exactly what kind of nuclear and plutonium research will be done there, whether the lab is really necessary, and — perhaps most important — will it be safe, or could it become New Mexico's equivalent of Japan's Fukushima?

As federal officials prepare the final design plans for the controversial and very expensive lab, increased scrutiny is being placed on what in recent years has been discovered to be a greater potential for a major earthquake along the fault lines that have carved out the stunning gorges, canyons and valleys that surround the nation's premier nuclear weapons facility in northern New Mexico.

Final preparations for the lab — whose the high-end price tag estimate of $5.8 billion is almost $1 billion more than New Mexico's annual state budget and more than double the lab's annual budget — also comes as a cash-strapped Congress looks to trim defense spending and cut cleanup budgets at contaminated facilities like Los Alamos. It also comes as the inspector general recommends that the federal government consider consolidating its far-flung network of research labs.

Despite the uncertainty, the National Nuclear Safety Administration, an arm of the Department of Energy that oversees the nation's nuclear labs, is moving forward on final designs for the lab. Project director Herman Le-Doux says it has been redesigned with input from the nation's leading seismic experts, and the NNSA has "gone to great extremes" to ensure the planned building could withstand an earthquake of up to 7.3 magnitude.

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