Editor’s Note: The original version of this story misidentified the group headed by Greg Mello. It is the Los Alamos Study Group.
Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The National Nuclear Security Administration announced Wednesday that it has approved the project definition phase and conceptual design of the Los Alamos Plutonium Pit Production Project, paving the way for the lab to ramp up production of the triggering devices for nuclear warheads.
According to an NNSA news release, the estimated cost of the project ranges from $2.7 billion to $3.9 billion. That’s because the estimates will be adjusted as the conceptual design matures to meet performance baselines, which isn’t expected until 2023, according to the release.
“NNSA leadership and LANL will continue to review this project to improve the fidelity of the current price estimate and schedule,” the release states.
Nevertheless, LANL’s current budget is $3.8 billion per year, with about $2.7 billion going toward weapons programs, according to LANL’s website.
The NNSA announcement already has drawn the promise of a lawsuit.
Nuclear Watch New Mexico was among the groups that called for an environmental impact study to be conducted in advance of any increased activities at LANL.
“Unless NNSA changes course, Nuclear Watch New Mexico will litigate to enforce the public’s right to review and comment on the agency’s expanded production of plutonium ‘pit’ bomb cores for new nuclear weapons,” said Jay Coghlan, the group’s executive director. “NNSA’s unnecessary and provocative plans will cost at least 43 billion taxpayer dollars, create more contamination and radioactive wastes, and help fuel a new nuclear arms race.”
Coghlan said the cost estimate he provided is for the life cycle of the entire pit production project and includes costs associated with production at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
Between LANL and the Savannah River Site, the two national labs have been tasked with producing 80 pits per year by 2030. LANL is scheduled to produce at least 30 plutonium pits per year by 2026, according to NNSA.
“Critical equipment is scheduled to be installed in time to achieve the 30 pits per year production capacity in 2026,” NNSA said of the project in Los Alamos.
Earlier this month, LANL Director Thom Mason said LANL would undergo “a significant” upgrade to infrastructure and facility improvement at the lab in the coming years.
“There are new facilities we need to build, there are older facilities that we need to make sure are fit for purpose, and improve and upgrade,” he said. “This laboratory has a lot of facilities that were built in the post-war Cold War era. They were state of the art at the time, but state of the art has moved on since 1954 and they are no longer meeting our needs.”
Greg Mello, executive director of Los Alamos Study Group, said LANL can’t make enough pits to support the current nuclear weapon stockpile.
“So, even with a much small(er) stockpile, LANL could not undertake this mission successfully,” he said, adding that, when the Savannah River Site goes online with pit production, there will be no need to produce them in Los Alamos. “So why waste all this money at LANL?”