SANTA FE – A federal agency spokesperson acknowledged Monday that Los Alamos National Laboratory is competing with the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to continue production of plutonium “pits.”
But the ranking members of the U.S. Senate’s Armed Forces Committee have weighed in to support keeping the manufacture of the grapefruit-sized nuclear weapons triggers, worth billions of federal dollars in construction and operational work, at Los Alamos.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., said in a letter to U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry that a DOE study raising questions about whether making pits should stay at Los Alamos “is putting the long-term plutonium capabilities of the United States at serious risk” and could produce “long-term delays.”
The senators also say in their Sept. 20 letter that the DOE is considering an option to resurrect plans for a “big box” building at Los Alamos to replace aging plutonium facilities, instead of smaller “modular” construction intended to hold down costs.
An earlier big box project crashed in 2012 after $450 million had already been spent on design and study, as cost estimates that started at $800 million ballooned to as much as $6 billion. That project, McCain and Reed wrote, “was cancelled for good reasons the first time.”
DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration is under a congressional mandate to make 80 pits a year by 2030 as part of an extensive nuclear weapons modernization plan. It has been studying whether LANL or somewhere else is the best place to reach that goal.
No new pits have been made since 2011, when LANL completed the last of 29 for Navy submarine missiles. The most ever made at Los Alamos in a year is 11. Meanwhile, LANL has faced scrutiny for safety lapses, including a recent incident involving plutonium and pit-making.
NNSA spokesperson Lindsey Geisler said Monday that the NNSA’s study has “identified two options – one at Los Alamos National Laboratory and one at the Savannah River Site – for further engineering analysis, which will be conducted by a team of external and internal experts.”
On Friday, a “summary of results” page from the NNSA study was leaked showing estimates that the 80-pits-a-year goal could be reached quicker and cheaper at other sites, including Savannah River, instead of at Los Alamos. New Mexico’s congressional delegation called the study “deeply flawed from the start.”
The McCain-Reed letter, released Monday by Sen. Martin Heinrich’s office, says, “We are concerned that NNSA is underestimating the cost and difficulty of relocating the unique and specialized skills required for plutonium handling to another location.” The Senate leaders also said NNSA’s delays in completing its location study “will make it nearly impossible for NNSA to meet the statutory pit production requirements.”