WASHINGTON, D.C. – The majority of the nation’s production of plutonium cores for nuclear weapons would take place at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina under a plan certified by the Nuclear Weapons Council and announced Thursday, but a lesser number of plutonium “pits” would still be made at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The council has accepted a National Nuclear Security Administration recommendation to repurpose a facility at Savannah River to make 50 pits a year coupled with “an enduring mission” to make at least 30 pits per year at Los Alamos, currently the only place in the country set up to make the softball-sized cores.
The two-pronged approach “is the best way to manage the cost, schedule, and risk of such a vital undertaking,” according to a statement Thursday by Ellen M. Lord, Department of Defense undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment and chairwoman of the Nuclear Weapons Council, and Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty, Department of Energy undersecretary for nuclear security, administrator of the NNSA and a member of NWC.
“Furthermore, by maintaining Los Alamos as the Nation’s Plutonium Center of Excellence for Research and Development, the recommended alternative improves the resiliency, flexibility, and redundancy of our Nuclear Security Enterprise by not relying on a single production site,” the statement said.
At her confirmation hearing in February, Gordon-Hagerty told Congress that ramping up plutonium pit production was the most important issue on her agenda as head of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex.
Democratic members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, who had been lobbying fiercely to keep and expand the plutonium work at LANL, said the announcement was both good and bad for the weapons lab.
In a joint statement, Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Ray Luján lamented that pending plans to build new underground “modules” for making the plutonium pits at LANL will be halted.
“While we are pleased that Los Alamos National Laboratory will remain the Research & Development Plutonium Center of Excellence and will be allowed to expand their plutonium pit production capability with a new multi-billion investment, halting the long-planned modular expansion of LANL’s facilities for plutonium pit production will set back our military’s life extension programs and stretch the Lab’s existing facilities and workforce to its limits,” the New Mexico lawmakers said.
“Instead of wasting billions of dollars exploring the construction of a new facility that will likely never be completed somewhere else, the Department of Energy should immediately move forward with the new, modular plutonium facilities at Los Alamos – as originally endorsed by both Congress and the Nuclear Weapons Council.”
The NNSA 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.
The possibility that pit manufacturing – which comes with billions of dollars in funding for operations and facilities and hundreds of jobs – might take place somewhere other than Los Alamos was first reported by the Journal last year, after NNSA officials made brief mention of the idea at public meeting in Santa Fe.
Udall and Heinrich inserted an amendment into the latest defense budget bill that made it more difficult for NNSA to move pit production from LANL, requiring the Nuclear Weapons Council’s approval. The amendment also set a deadline of this week for action.
The U.S. manufactured thousands of pits during the Cold War at the old Rocky Flats facility in Colorado.
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, work at LANL was stalled by a series of mistakes, and the lab has faced scrutiny for safety lapses, including several in recent months involving plutonium and preliminary pit-making work.
Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuke Watch New Mexico, said the NNSA announcement represented “in large part a political decision, designed to keep the congressional delegations of both New Mexico and South Carolina happy.”
“There is no explanation why the Department of Defense requires at least 80 pits per year, and no justification to the American taxpayer why the enormous expense of expanded production is necessary,” Coghlan said.
Late last year, a “summary of results” page from the NNSA study was leaked showing estimates that the goal of 80 pits a year could be reached quicker and more cheaply at sites other than Los Alamos, including Savannah River, despite several prior years of planning for new underground facilities for plutonium work at LANL.
New Mexico’s congressional delegation called the study “deeply flawed from the start.”
LANL director Terry Wallace said the lab welcomes “the NNSA’s decision to continue full-scale production of plutonium pits at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and to invest in a surge capability at the Laboratory to maximize pit production.
“In reaffirming the Laboratory’s status as the Nation’s Plutonium Center of R&D Excellence, the NNSA has given the Laboratory a big vote of confidence.”
Wallace added: “This commitment by the government to expand our plutonium mission reiterates the critical role we play in ensuring the nation’s security—and pit manufacturing is central to that.”
In a memo to staff, Wallace also said, ‘The NNSA is investing an additional $3 billion in new mission space, which includes people, infrastructure, and equipment.”
Some critics maintain there is no need to make any new pits, with thousands produced in the past and now in storage that could be adapted for use. Former NNSA Director Linton Brooks recently proposed the use of old pits as an alternative if new production proved too difficult.
“No new pits are needed for any warhead,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, another nuclear weapons watchdog organization. “In the longer run, government would be wise to focus on pit re-use, because there are thousands of usable pits sitting around.”
But Mello also said the NNSA’s decision “appears to be a rational one within the limits of existing law.”
“LANL can’t handle the industrial mission, period, and there was always going to be overlap in time between small pit production at LANL and the establishment of any new production site,” he said.
Thursday’s news release said a facility for pits at Savannah River Site will be created by converting the Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX.
The facility was conceived for conversion of weapons-grade plutonium from dismantled warheads into fuel for nuclear reactors as part of an agreement between the U.S. and Russia to dispose of tons of weapons-grade plutonium.
But the giant project, which broke ground more than a decade ago, has faced delays, litigation and costs ballooning from an early estimate of $4 billion to a projected $17 billion now. The Obama administration called for abandoning it.
South Carolina officials, including Gov. Henry McMaster, have been pushing to keep the MOX mission even as local officials in the Savannah River area, near Augusta, Ga., have been wooing the pit work, with positive resolutions passed by local governments.
But on Thursday, as the NNSA unveiled the pit production plan, U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry executed a waiver to terminate MOX construction, according to a report in the Aiken Standard, a South Carolina newspaper.
Heinrich’s Senate race opponent this year, Republican Mick Rich, blamed Heinrich for the pit work that is going to South Carolina.
“This disappointing news shows once again how Martin Heinrich fails to stand up for New Mexico’s national labs – and how critical they are to our economy and national security,” campaign spokesman Mike Lonergan said.
Brad Elkins, Heinrich’s campaign manager, responded, “Having a vision and fighting for our labs and workers like Senator Heinrich does is the best way of ensuring a durable and strong set of missions for years to come. Bragging about being a cheerleader for Donald Trump or one of his latest cabinet secretaries is not.”