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Will production of nuclear ‘pits’ leave LANL?

SANTA FE – Even as Los Alamos National Laboratory is under orders to ramp up production of plutonium nuclear weapons triggers – a key part of a huge plan to modernize the nation’s weapons stockpile – testimony before a national oversight board here last week indicates there’s a possibility that the work and its billions in federal dollars could be moved elsewhere.

Members of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board were told that an analysis is underway to consider all options for meeting the national weapons complex’s mission to manage plutonium work and produce products like the “pits” that set off nuclear bombs.

From left, Craig Leasure, of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Kimberly Davis Lebak, of the National Nuclear Security Administration, and James McConnell, NNSA administrator for safety, infrastructure and operations, answer questions during a public meeting Wednesday in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

James McConnell, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s associate administrator for safety, infrastructure and operations, said meeting those goals could be satisfied using existing or new facilities in Los Alamos – or by adding capabilities at “other sites where plutonium is already present or has been used.”

McConnell said the pros and cons of all options will be considered in a study that should be completed over the next several months. At that point, he said, NNSA officials should know, for instance, whether the existing plutonium facility at Los Alamos known as PF-4 remains part of the agency’s strategy “in such a way that we need to then schedule an upgrade at PF-4,” which was built in the 1970s.

Los Alamos currently is the only site meeting security and hazardous materials protocols to make pits.

Sean Sullivan, chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, asks a question during a public meeting at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center in Santa Fe on Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

McConnell’s comments – possibly the first time that the option of moving plutonium operations away from LANL has been broached publicly by federal officials – came in the context of 4½ hours of discussion of risks and safety issues at PF-4 or, as the safety board’s agenda for Wednesday’s meeting put it, “the adequacy and status of safety systems to support current and long-term operations.”

McConnell said potential PF-4 upgrades, such as a $200 million to $400 million ventilation system intended to help contain a major fire, would be decided after the ongoing analysis is completed. “There are a lot of different alternatives,” he said.

The Department of Defense and Congress have ordered production of as many as 50 to 80 “pits” – the grapefruit-sized plutonium cores of nuclear weapons – annually by 2030.

But ramping up pit production is a huge undertaking. The United States, after mass producing pits during the Cold War at the defunct Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, hasn’t made any new ones since 2011, when LANL completed the last of 29 plutonium cores for Navy submarine missiles. The most ever made at Los Alamos in a year is 11.

For the moment, the lab can’t resume pit production until safety issues are addressed.

McConnell said the NNSA is being required to reach a pit production level that the country hasn’t faced for a long time and there’s “a learning curve we’re all going through.”

Greg Mello, with the Los Alamos Study Group, takes notes during a public meeting of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center in Santa Fe on Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

As noted at Wednesday’s meeting, LANL in 2016 was the only one of the Department of Energy’s nuclear facilities to receive a failing “red” safety rating in the area of “criticality,” or prevention of nuclear chain reactions that could lead to radiation releases.

McConnell said LANL is making a lot of progress in this area, but the situation is “not where we need to be.” One problem, officials said, is a dearth of people who can do criticality work. Hiring new experts amounts to “cannibalizing” personnel from the country’s other nuclear weapons sites, said Kimberly Davis Lebak, manager of the NNSA’s Los Alamos Field Office.

“There is no criterion that outweighs safety,” McConnell said.

Much of the Wednesday meeting at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center was about potential doomsday scenarios for the Los Alamos lab. It sits on an earthquake fault that studies have shown has a probability of a major earthquake once every 10,000 years. In the worst case, a devastating quake would be followed by a fire. Officials said at the meeting they believe that safety measures now in place are adequate to contain such a disaster without a major radiological release.

Some of the safety issues include long-standing safety deficiencies that haven’t been corrected, finding replacement parts for some of PF-4 systems that date from the 1970s, the reliability of back-up and redundant power and fire-fighting water supplies and the overall reduction of “material at risk,” or MAR, at PF-4.

Such material has been reduced by 60 percent since 2009, the board was told, but a significant amount of the remaining MAR has “no defined use” or faces obstacles to disposition

Critics of the lab contend there is no need to make new pits for nuclear weapons and say that parts of the military don’t even want the planned new weapons that new pit production would serve.