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‘Steps’ toward pit production made at Los Alamos

SANTA FE, N.M. — The federal Department of Energy has given approval to changes at Los Alamos National Laboratory that are “steps along the way” toward resuming production of so-called plutonium “pits,” the triggers for nuclear weapons.

Production of plutonium “pits,” triggers for nuclear weapons, is expected to resume at Los Alamos National Laboratory with a goal of making as many as 80 pits a year by 2030. This is a file photo of work on a pit at LANL through an airtight glovebox. (Courtesy of LANL)

Production of plutonium “pits,” triggers for nuclear weapons, is expected to resume at Los Alamos National Laboratory with a goal of making as many as 80 pits a year by 2030. This is a file photo of work on a pit at LANL through an airtight glovebox. (Courtesy of LANL)

The moves endorsed by the DOE include a big increase in plutonium capacity at an existing facility at Los Alamos and new laboratory space in underground “modules” for pit production, part of plans to replace the lab’s old Chemical and Metallurgy Research (CMR) Building for plutonium work, and get pit production up and rolling.

The changes have been reported by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), a Congressional oversight agency, and follow directives over the past few years from the Department of Defense and Congress to ramp up pit production for upgrades or changes to the nation’s nuclear weapons force.

The Nuclear Watch New Mexico watchdog group, in a news release last week, said the recent moves “make explicit” the decision to expand pit-production capabilities at Los Alamos.

DOE actions, open to interpretation absent detailed information or explanation from the federal agency, may also suggest that Los Alamos will handle all the plutonium work associated with making pits after prior discussion of farming out some of the work to other parts of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex.

One approved “restructuring,” for instance, will re-categorize the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building at Los Alamos from its current radiological limit of 38.6 grams of plutonium-239 more than 10 times to 400 grams to support the increased capacity “required for larger pit manufacturing rates,” which the government intends to be at 50 to 80 units per year by 2030. The RLUOB facility can provide analytical chemistry testing as part of the plutonium work.

The changes OK’d by DOE also raise the question of whether cheaper alternatives to building the new modular facilities, including several options offered in reports by the Congressional Research Service in 2014 and 2015, have been rejected, are still on the table or could be combined with the $2 billion modular plan that now has initial “mission need” approval.

In response to Journal questions, a spokeswoman for DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration provided a statement saying: “NNSA pursues a plutonium strategy that optimizes existing facilities and addresses future program needs to create a responsive infrastructure.

“The FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) states that a modern, responsive infrastructure, which includes the capability to produce up to 50 to 80 pits per year, is a national security priority. The memos referenced in the DNFSB report document steps along the way to meet this need.”

The statement adds that the DOE has also approved “the mission need for the Plutonium Modular Approach,” or adding the underground modules for pit work. Those plans as described previously would link the new underground facilities to existing LANL buildings via tunnels.

“Approval of the mission need allows the NNSA to begin the next step for this proposed project, which is developing a rigorous Analysis of Alternatives,” the NNSA statement adds.

“NNSA continues to ensure that all our activities are executed safely, securely and in a manner consistent with applicable regulatory requirements.”

Greg Mello, of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, questioned if there can be “a rigorous analysis of alternatives” if NNSA has already decided on the “modular approach.” The cost for two underground module facilities has been estimated at $1 billion each.

That’s less expensive than a previously planned CMR replacement facility at Los Alamos that was scuttled as cost estimates skyrocketed from mere millions of dollars to several billion and safety concerns were raised. But Congressional Research Service reports over the past two years have suggested that better management of and improvements to existing facilities could be cheaper alternatives than expensive new buildings.

A U.S. Senate appropriations committee wrote in 2014, “Before proposing the construction of laboratory modules, the Committee believes NNSA must first conduct a realistic and thorough assessment of alternatives which explores the use of existing facilities across DOE and NNSA labs and sites to meet plutonium mission needs,” according to a report in the Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor.

On Friday, Santa Fe-based Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety launched a campaign to demand a formal environmental impact statement process before the radiological limit is increased at RLOUB. The much higher limits approved by DOE would “create more hazards and require structural modifications as well as additional safety, security and emergency preparedness measures,” said CCNS.

‘Sisyphean’ task?

The difficult task of pit production has been a long-term issue for DOE. One of the Congressional Research Service reports, by Jonathan Medalia in 2014, describes the government’s efforts to produce pits as “Sisyphean,” referring to Sisyphus, the character in Greek mythology condemned to an eternity of trying to roll a giant boulder uphill, only to see it to roll downhill again, over and over.

During the Cold War, as many as 2,000 pits per year were made at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado. That stopped in 1989 after an FBI raid search for safety and environmental violations. Since then, there have been several failed efforts to develop facilities for high-level production of pits, Medalia noted. But only 29 pits have been made since Rocky Flats – at Los Alamos between 2007 and 2011 – for replacement in submarine-launched ballistic warheads.

Lab watchdogs in New Mexico don’t believe a case has been made for mass production of pits, even as they also question DOE’s plans for how to make more of the nuclear triggers.

Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico said, “There is no need for expanded plutonium pit production to maintain the safety and reliability of the existing nuclear weapons stockpile, but it is vital for future new designs that the nuclear weaponeers want.”

“NNSA claims about ‘optimizing existing facilities’ and executing all projects ‘safely, securely and consistent with applicable regulatory requirements’ are ambitions, not realities,” said Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group. “They need a large grain of salt. Each year for more than three decades, the Government Accountability Office has kept NNSA’s management of large projects on its ‘high risk list’ for waste, fraud, and abuse.

“Most NNSA projects run far beyond cost and schedule estimates. Some are simply abandoned. On this project alone, NNSA has already wasted at least $500 million and a decade on failed designs.

“Prior to this particular ongoing fiasco project, the Congressional Research Service lists six earlier attempts to build new pit production factories which failed,” he continued. “Why do they fail? Because there is no need for a new pit factory. The U.S. has about five thousand extra plutonium pits, about two thousand in deployed warheads and bombs, and more than two thousand in reserve warheads. All the pits in the current stockpile will last several decades longer, to around 2080. In addition to all these, ten thousand surplus pits sit in bunkers in Texas.”