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House-passed bill would boost LANL ‘pit’ role

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s congressional delegation is close to passing language in a major budget bill that would shore up Los Alamos National Laboratory’s role in producing plutonium cores for nuclear weapons.

In a portion of a $727 billion defense bill passed by the House on Thursday, LANL would be tasked with implementing “surge efforts” to make more than 30 plutonium “pits” a year to meet national defense and nuclear weapons policy.

Also, using round-the-clock labor shifts for plutonium work at Los Alamos would be assessed as a way to ramp up pit production quickly.

Where the softball-sized weapon cores should be made has become a contentious political issue. And some critics maintain the nation doesn’t need to build any new pits, with thousands produced during the Cold War still in storage.

In May, the Nuclear Weapons Council certified the National Nuclear Security Administration’s plan to repurpose the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to make 50 pits a year coupled with “an enduring mission” to produce at least 30 “pits” per year at Los Alamos, currently the only place in the country set up to make the weapon cores.

The NNSA is under a congressional mandate to make 80 pits a year by 2030 as part of an extensive and expensive nuclear weapons modernization plan. New Mexico’s congressional delegation has been fighting to keep all the pit work and the billions of dollars of facility and operational dollars that come with it, at Los Alamos.

The language in the defense bill calls for another look at where pits should be made and includes other provisions that support Los Alamos, which has faced scrutiny over safety lapses in work with radioactive materials in recent years.

The bill calls for the NNSA to produce plans for LANL to make 30 pits annually by 2026 or to make all of the mandated 80 pits per year, in case the South Carolina facility “is not operational and producing pits by 2030.”

The defense bill also directs the Department of Defense, in consultation with the NNSA, to hire an independent contractor to review an NNSA engineering study that determined that dividing pit-making duties between Los Alamos and the Savannah River Site was the way to go.

The review would assess making 80 pits a year at Los Alamos alone “through the use of multiple labor shifts and additional equipment at PF-4 (the lab’s existing plutonium facility) until modular facilities are completed to provide a long-term, single-labor shift capacity.”

A statement from the office of U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said the senator remains concerned that halting plans for new underground “modules” at LANL for the riskiest plutonium work – in favor of pushing most pit work to South Carolina – “will set back our military’s life extension programs (for nuclear weapons) and stretch the lab’s existing facilities and workforce to its limits.”

Greg Mello of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group expressed concern that the mandate for more study of where to make pits is intended to produce a predetermined result favoring Los Alamos and reassure lobbyists and officials “we can justify spending billions ASAP.”

With the long life of the pits now in storage, there’s no need to make more for decades, he said. “The upside-down priorities embodied in this plan only makes sense as part of a growing military-oriented federal budget that betrays progressives and conservatives alike,” Mello said.

Thousands of pits were made during the Cold War, but none have been made since 2011, when LANL completed the last of 29 for submarine missiles. The most ever made at LANL in a year is 11.

The new defense bill also would authorize $361 million – an increase of $140 million over the current fiscal year – for LANL’s plutonium research and pit production for the 2019 budget year.

The defense bill now heads to the Senate. The language about Los Alamos has already been through the joint House-Senate conference process.

The fate of pit production at Los Alamos has become intertwined with events at the Savannah River Site, outside Aiken, S.C., which like LANL is a Department of Energy facility overseen by the NNSA. South Carolina’s political leaders are fighting the NNSA’s plan to repurpose Savannah River’s mixed-oxide fuel project for pit production.

In a suit brought by South Carolina state government, a judge recently issued an injunction against stopping the MOX project, putting NNSA’s plans to make pits in South Carolina on ice for now.

The MOX plant is intended to turn weapons-grade plutonium from dismantled warheads into fuel for nuclear reactors as part of a nonproliferation agreement between the U.S. and Russia. But the project has faced delays, litigation and costs ballooning from an early estimate of $4 billion to a projected $17 billion. The MOX project is generally considered more lucrative than making pits.

LANL is transitioning to new management. A partnership of the University of California, Texas A&M University and the giant scientific nonprofit Battelle Memorial Institute will take over the $2.2. billion operating contract in November, replacing a private consortium that includes UC and the Bechtel Corp.