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Debate over ‘pits’ at LANL may be getting real

Who wants the pits?

Over the past few months, three members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation – U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján – have been fighting to keep the manufacture of the plutonium cores of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

LANL is the only place the grapefruit-size “pits” have been made since the Rocky Flats facility in Colorado – which cranked them out for the Cold War – shut down in 1992. And it’s the only U.S. site that meets security and hazardous materials protocols for the job.

But no 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. Congress and the Department of Defense, however, want to ramp up production to 80 pits annually, part of a vast weapons modernization plan started under the Obama administration (as a trade-off for a new arms control treaty) and which has an estimated (some say under-estimated) cost of roughly $1.2 trillion. There are reports that President Trump soon will propose an even more hawkish plan.

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Now, after years of work in fits and starts to solve safety problems and plans to finance new underground facilities at Los Alamos, LANL might get passed over for the pit work.

For some reason, the Department of Energy, or at least its semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, is considering other options for pit production. The reason isn’t clear because the DOE and NNSA don’t say much – transparency is not their strong suit. What is known for sure is that NNSA now is considering its Savannah River Site (sounds something like a resort) in South Carolina, as well LANL, for making pits. The work comes with billions of dollars in funding and apparently hundreds of jobs.

Udall, Heinrich and Luján have been raising heck about an NNSA study that says it would be cheaper and quicker to build pits at Savannah River. They sent a letter to DOE Secretary Rick Perry arguing, essentially, that the study was rigged against LANL.

Meanwhile, their fellow Democrats in local government – the Santa Fe City Council – have taken a different tack. They’ve raised questions about the safety of pit production and expressed worries about the impact on local communities.

Both resolutions, after citing safety lapses at LANL, call for suspension of “any planned expanded plutonium pit production at LANL until all nuclear criticality safety issues are resolved,” as certified by the independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. (To be fair to the Democratic Congress members, they have also stood up for keeping the DNFSB strong in its oversight of national labs).

Still on the books is a Santa Fe council resolution from 2005 supporting nuclear non-proliferation and recognizing “as immoral the notion that human security can ever be built upon instruments of mass destruction and the will to use them.”

There’s also a valid contrary argument that the U.S. doesn’t need any new pits, with thousands of old ones in storage. The Navy has previously resisted a new “interoperable warhead” that could be used by with both submarines and land-based missiles, and has been cited as one of the justifications for new pits.

This week, there’s another wrinkle. While the governing body of Santa Fe, downhill and about 34 miles from Los Alamos, has a somewhat troubled relationship with the weapons lab, South Carolina wants to extend some Southern hospitality to pits. The Aiken, S.C., city council, several miles north of the Savannah River Site (SRS), passed a resolution Monday “supporting and encouraging” pit production there. Aiken’s mayor estimates 800 jobs would come with the pits.

SRS has its own issues. The Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX, planned for conversion of weapons-grade plutonium from dismantled warheads into fuel for nuclear reactors (part of a deal with Russia), has faced delays, litigation and ballooning costs, from an early estimate of $4 billion to possibly as much as $17 billion now. The MOX building could be repurposed for pits.

Well, now, this could get interesting. If NNSA is inclined to move pit production to South Carolina, be it for safety, cost or merely political reasons, local opinion could be another point in SRS’s favor. This time, our expressed nervousness about the risk of plutonium work and being part of the nuclear weapons complex really might have consequences if the feds do, in fact, listen to local input.

Is it time to get real, so to speak? If Santa Feans want to want to push away plutonium work, with its radioactive hazard, but also jobs, this might be their chance. Let that debate begin in earnest.

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