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Study: LANL may not be best for pit-making

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A federal agency’s study is raising questions about whether Los Alamos National Laboratory is the best place to continue making plutonium “pits,” the triggers used to set off nuclear weapons.

A single page from a briefing on a National Nuclear Security Administration study of where pit production should be ramped up over the next two decades leaked out on Friday. The document says there are cheaper and quicker options at Idaho National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

New Mexico’s congressional delegation is questioning the findings.

“We have had concerns that the evaluation process undertaken by NNSA that led to this report was deeply flawed from the start,” said a statement from U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján.

No new pits have been made 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. But NNSA now faces a congressional mandate to make 80 pits a year by about 2030, as part of a huge and expensive plan for arsenal modernization.

In Santa Fe in June, at a meeting of a nuclear safety oversight board, NNSA officials first disclosed publicly they were studying whether to keep pit-making operations, which come with billions of dollars in operational and construction money, at Los Alamos or move them elsewhere.

A “summary of results” page from a briefing on the study, provided to the Journal by Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, says necessary new facilities at Los Alamos could cost up to $7.5 billion, while refurbishing buildings in Idaho or at Savannah River would top out at $5.4 billion. The refurbished facilities at the other sites would be ready more quickly and could hit the 80-pits-per-year production rate by between 2029 to 2036, as opposed to between 2033 to 2038 using new facilities at LANL or elsewhere, the document says.

Plutonium pits – triggers for nuclear weapons – are cast at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2011. (Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory)

LANL got positive notice for having experience in production. The document also notes “risks” of “potentially contentious state government” in Idaho and South Carolina, and potential delays and “structural issues” with refurbishing buildings.

Udall, Heinrich and Luján said, “The Pentagon’s independent cost accountability office conducted this same assessment in 2013 and concluded that Los Alamos is the only option to meet cost and schedule requirements. We would be deeply skeptical of any alternative that contradicts that independent assessment.”

They also noted that a defense budget bill recently passed by Congress includes a Heinrich amendment requiring a detailed justification process for moving pit production from Los Alamos, which has been under scrutiny for recent safety lapses.

Mello, a frequent lab critic, said the pit production mandate is excessive and unrealistic. In any case, he said, “Los Alamos has too many problems to reliably conduct a large-scale pit production mission.”

“There’s been problem after problem, and the core of it is that Los Alamos is a research facility on narrow mesas, and it doesn’t have an industrial ethos or the appropriate site,” he said.

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