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We don’t need more pits, LANL can’t make them

In 1996, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) was assigned the job of creating a plutonium warhead core – (or) “pit” – factory that could produce 50 pits per year.

Twenty-three years and many billions later, LANL’s capacity to produce pits – let alone do so with reliability and confidence – is exactly zero.

LANL has no pit production capability, and that will remain the case until essential repairs, installations and safety enhancements to key buildings and functions are complete. This will take at least five years and cost $3 billion, assuming success.

Back in 1996, (the U.S. Department of Energy) said LANL could set up its factory by 2002 with only $310 million, including $200 million in deferred maintenance. Production would cost just $30 million per year. Doubling production would cost a mere $44 million and entail no extra operating costs.

LANL wasn’t remotely ready. Mission-critical buildings couldn’t be fixed. Three of LANL’s largest projects turned into complete fiascos and were terminated, one after spending a half-billion dollars over a decade.

Now, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) says another $3 billion will give LANL the capacity to produce 30 pits per year by 2026, three decades after this mission was assigned.

Serious obstacles lie ahead, not counting the profound institutional mismatch of jamming a high-hazard nuclear production mission into a scientific laboratory, and LANL’s intractable cultural problems. NNSA doesn’t acknowledge half these problems and has no plan for dealing with the other half.

As in 1996, LANL isn’t ready. It never will be.

The building at the center of LANL’s production will be 52 years old in 2030, the year NNSA wants industrial-scale production to start. It was designed for research, not production. It lacks safety-class fire protection and ventilation. NNSA doesn’t understand its seismic safety and won’t for years. For these reasons and others, NNSA has stated this facility provides no enduring production capability.

In fact, LANL as a whole is entirely unsuited to production for fundamental, unchangeable reasons. Faraway bureaucrats and distracted congresspersons can’t change LANL’s inappropriate location, topography, geology, institutional identity and culture by diktat.

Back in the day, Sens. (Pete) Domenici and (Jeff) Bingaman, and then-Reps. (Bill) Richardson and (now Sen. Tom) Udall all said LANL was ill-suited for pit production. Sen. (Martin) Heinrich, oblivious to history and the facts on the ground, thinks he knows better. Udall is right there with him, in stark contrast to what he said as a congressman.

Why make pits at all? The U.S. has about 11,000 pits. They will remain serviceable until at least the 2060s, according to the latest unclassified joint Pentagon/DOE report. In any case, 30 pits per year, should LANL ever achieve that, does not supply enough pits for warhead production – which, of course, is not necessary in the first place. The best LANL can offer nuclear hawks is a restored R&D capability and skill retention. The rest is pure waste and heightened risk.

Heinrich and Udall insist on truly grandiose production – an average of 100 pits a year, all at LANL. In 2018, NNSA’s consultants said this would require an additional $3.5 billion to $12 billion investment and an additional $300 million to $400 million in operating expenses.

Now, with another big study done, NNSA has told Congress that LANL cannot do this, no matter how much money is spent. For some reason, our delegation hasn’t gotten the message.

From the engineering perspective, the only realistic plan for enduring pit production involves the brand new, partially constructed plutonium facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

But again, why? The world is beset with converging, urgent existential crises that have nothing to do with nuclear weapons. Thousands of species are going extinct. Earth’s climate is collapsing. Perhaps most germane to congressional decision-makers, interest on the federal debt may eclipse military spending as soon as 2023. National security now requires different priorities and investments.

Responsible leaders make responsible choices. Pouring yet more billions into yesterday’s poorly planned nuclear weapons schemes isn’t one of them.

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