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Study questions whether LANL, DOE can meet ‘pits’ production goal

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A recent study casts serious doubts on the potential success of any of the options considered by the U.S. Department of Energy for meeting mandates on the manufacture of plutonium cores for nuclear weapons – most of them involving Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The congressionally funded study also says that it would be “very high risk” to try to meet the nation’s ambitious goals for making bomb “pits” by installing more equipment and adding an extra work shift for a production “surge” at LANL’s existing plutonium facility, an idea that has been discussed.

Some of the risks cited in the report include whether there is the ability to stage, store and ship waste, and “the transport/transfer complexity of radioactive material.”

The study goes further and questions the overall plan to ramp up U.S. pit production, which is estimated to cost $14 billion to $28 billion, saying that “eventual success of the strategy to reconstitute plutonium pit production is far from certain.”

DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons labs, is under a mandate from Congress and the Department of Defense to make 80 pits a year by 2030 as part of a massive plan to modernize the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

The U.S. made many pits during the Cold War, with thousands still in storage, but only a handful have been produced in recent decades, all of them at Los Alamos.

“Considering the scale and complexity of the project, there is no historical precedent within NNSA to support the idea that even initial operations can be started by 2030, much less full rate production,” says the study by the nonprofit Institute for Defense Analysis.

It notes that similar projects – such as plans to add a “big box” facility at Los Alamos for plutonium work whose estimated cost ballooned from $800 million to about $6 billion – were eventually dropped and that those that were completed “all experienced substantial cost growth and schedule slippage.”

NNSA and members of Congress have been at odds over the agency’s plan to divide pit production between LANL – which is tasked with ramping up to 30 pits a year – and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where a huge facility built for another purpose would be converted to making the rest of the cores.

U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both New Mexico Democrats who want all pit-making to remain at Los Alamos, got legislation passed that funded a review of NNSA’s two-site plan.

In April, NNSA issued a news release – but not the study itself – that said the Institute for Defense Analysis’ report showed that all options considered “had cost and schedule risks” but concluded that NNSA’s two-site plan is “potentially” achievable.

An executive summary of the report that leaked over the past week is more directly negative. The summary, provided to the Journal last week by the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group, says no option under consideration can be expected to meet the 2030 deadline for 80 pits a year. The Department of Defense “should evaluate how to best respond to this requirement shortfall,” the summary says.

Greg Mello of the Study Group said the report is bad news for the Trump administration’s plans for new nuclear warheads.

“Long-time congressional analysts remind us: nuclear operations cannot be rushed and must be pursued deliberately at every stage, or setbacks and accidents will derail projects,” Mello said in an e-mail.

Asked for comment, an NNSA spokesman referred to the April news release about the study. In it, NNSA administrator Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty said, “We’re fully committed to meeting military requirements and our two-pronged approach at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site represents the best way to manage the cost, schedule and risk of producing no fewer than 80 pits a year.”

Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico said the report “makes clear that DOE is blowing smoke when it says that it will produce 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030 for new unneeded nuclear weapons. … They need to slow down, do it right and for sure do it safely. Above all the feds must concretely demonstrate a real need for expanded pit production before they fleece the American taxpayer of tens of billions of dollars.”

New Mexico’s senators continue to push for LANL to get the pit work.

“I will be looking closely at this issue given we now know the lifecycle cost will exceed the cost of other options considered by at least $14 billion, which is double the estimate for Los Alamos,” Heinrich said in recent comments at a congressional committee meeting provided by his staff.

Udall said, “It’s clear that splitting pit production is a plan with a political rationale that raises serious financial, safety and national security questions, and that is the exact opposite way that DOE should be making nuclear security decisions.”

An NNSA spokesman said that a two-site plan, despite possible higher costs, “represents a cost-benefit consideration for NNSA to ensure resiliency in the capabilities needed for pit production.”

“Resiliency ensures that an interruption in production at a single site does not derail pit production with cascading consequences in terms of costs, schedule, and ultimately NNSA’s ability to meet DoD requirements.”

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