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LANL isn’t fit for ramped up mission

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and other nuclear weapons sites, seeks to dramatically expand its production capacity over the coming five years. NNSA plans to increase the nuclear workforce by 20,000 over this period, including thousands at LANL, and plans to spend many billions on factories and test facilities.

LANL alone expects to spend $5.5 billion … on infrastructure over five years and $13 billion over the coming decade.

NNSA’s highest priority is also LANL’s main new mission: plutonium warhead core – “pit” – production.

Such pits are “needed” only for a new warhead to equip a new fleet of intercontinental missiles, a $100 billion to $150 billion program, not including pits.

Pit production is not, however, the only plutonium mission slated to expand at LANL. Twenty-six metric tons of plutonium in surplus pits are to be processed at LANL, if not all 44 tons of surplus metal. Production of highly radioactive plutonium heat sources is meanwhile expanding as well. After LANL’s repeated shutdowns, pit surveillance must also expand.

Thousands of new plutonium workers must be trained for LANL and the proposed pit factory in South Carolina. To reach 30 pits per year, LANL’s plutonium facility will need to run around the clock. To do this, LANL says it needs about 1,400 additional workers.

Waste generation will grow, raising the question of when – or whether – the roughly 19,000 drums of transuranic waste currently on site will leave. It appears plutonium transportation on our highways could increase by roughly a factor of 100 over present waste shipments, by mass. Vault storage, currently maxed out, would somehow increase.

A broad coalition of Democrats, Republicans and arms control groups support a pit factory at LANL, differing mainly in how big they want it to be, how actively they promote it, and how much in denial they are about how much this mission would require and what it would do to the laboratory, surrounding communities and the state.

Many of these well-intentioned people do not realize that without strong restraint right now, this toboggan will go far and fast down a very steep slope with a cliff at the bottom. We and our children are on it.

LANL was assigned the pit mission in 1996, based on representations that LANL could make 50 pits/year with a mere $110 million … investment in new equipment and $30 million/year in extra costs. With an additional one-time charge of $44 million, LANL said it could make 100 pits/year in a 40-hour week.

Twenty-three years later with billions spent, LANL has zero reliable capacity. NNSA now estimates LANL would need 30 times as much up-front investment as previously thought to deliver by 2030 what LANL said in 1996 would be in place by 2002.

Only now, LANL’s main plutonium facility – “PF-4” – is 25 years older. NNSA also now knows the site has had very damaging magnitude 7 earthquakes at shallow depth, NNSA can no longer be sure PF-4 will not “pancake” in such an event. Other key buildings are even more vulnerable. PF-4 lacks modern ventilation, alarm, and fire protection systems. NNSA does not even know whether such equipment can be installed.

Meanwhile, LANL’s narrow mesas and powdery subsurface make building a safe, new facility next to PF-4 impossible.

The simple truth is that LANL has already failed at this mission.

Sens. (Pete) Domenici, (Jeff) Bingaman, and Congressmen (Bill) Richardson and (Tom) Udall foresaw this outcome. They didn’t support industrial pit production at LANL. Now none of our Democrats, who have recently done their best to maximize these missions, are asking for an environmental impact statement or even disclosure of these plans. What’s wrong with them? For shame!

It’s quite a mistake to identify nuclear weapons, or plutonium, with “innovation” or “economic development.” That’s decades-old corporate propaganda, which for far too long has taken the place of a strong, sustained focus on building resilient communities and caring for a living landscape.

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