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Debate is on over making more nuke triggers at LANL

SANTA FE, N.M. — The National Nuclear Security Administration is under orders from Congress to produce as many as 80 new nuclear weapons triggers a year by around 2030, and Los Alamos National Laboratory is the only place in the country that is equipped to make them now.

The plans for a higher-capacity plutonium pit production facility make Los Alamos key – some call the lab “ground zero” – as the Obama administration and Congress have moved forward to upgrade and modernize the nation’s nuclear weapons force, a plan that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated will cost $350 billion in the next decade.

Los Alamos National Laboratory is under orders from Congress to make up to 80 plutonium triggers or "pits" a year for nuclear weapons, by about 2030. This photo shows a lab employee working on pit production in the past. (COURTESY LANL)

Los Alamos National Laboratory is under orders from Congress to make up to 80 plutonium triggers or “pits” a year for nuclear weapons, by about 2030. This photo shows a lab employee working on pit production in the past. (Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory)

But ramping up pit production is a huge undertaking – the United States, after mass producing pits during the Cold War at the defunct Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, hasn’t made any new ones since 2011, when LANL completed the last of 29 plutonium cores for Navy submarine missiles. The most ever made at Los Alamos in a year is 11. For the moment, the lab can’t resume pit production until safety issues are addressed, possibly by the end of this year.

More pits would mean more radioactive materials at Los Alamos and more leftover waste that must be handled and safely stored, most likely at the temporarily closed Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

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Critics of the plan say it’s unnecessary for maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and way too expensive, particularly in today’s tough budget times.

In addition to pits currently installed in nuclear warheads, 10,000 or more previously manufactured pits are in storage and a few thousand more are said to be “strategic reserve.” A 2006 study for the government that was undertaken by scientific experts, supporting work by the national labs, and that NNSA touted at the time, found that the existing pits installed in warheads can last for many decades to come, with “credible lifetimes” of more than 100 years.

Supporters of increasing pit production see it as a hedge against possible future technical problems and unforeseen “geopolitical risk” – or military threat – and as a way to maintain pit production skills.

Skeptics of increased pit production extend beyond anti-nuclear advocates in New Mexico.

U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, a California Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that he strongly disagrees with ramping up pit production “in Los Alamos or anywhere else.”

Garamendi said the NNSA, the lab’s parent organization within the Department of Energy, “hasn’t even told us why they feel the need to increase pit production when we already have an unused stockpile of 10,000 pits.”

He noted that he tried to amend the 2015 defense spending bill to require the NNSA “to submit a report on the rationale and cost of expanding pit production … . I don’t understand the reasons for spending billions on a new pit production facility when we should be spending that money here at home.” The bill mandated building more pits and calls for demonstrated capability to build 80 pits per year in 2027.

Greg Mello of the local Los Alamos Study Group research and advocacy organization said that the 2006 study supporting the long life of existing pits has never been impugned.

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“What it all boils down to is that the generals are not happy that we don’t have a pit factory,” Mello said. “All the other details are unimportant … . They seem to want it for its own sake, and that is not going to work well.”

Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico notes that the wording of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that calls for making 80 pits annually asserts that the need is not driven solely by “life extension programs” intended to keep current weapons in good shape.

“It’s not about simple maintenance,” Coghlan said. “It’s about advancing weapons designs … . I assert that that’s a blank check for them to do what they want to do.”

He added: “They are seeking to divorce expanded pit production from the technical necessities of the stockpile.”

Basis for pit-making goal

A pit is the grapefruit-size plutonium core of the first stage of a nuclear bomb. Imploded by high explosives, it becomes compressed, resulting in a nuclear explosion that detonates the weapon’s main stage.

The 2015 defense spending bill’s language sets out the basic argument for increased pit production.

It says that “delaying creation of a modern, responsive nuclear infrastructure until the 2030s is an unacceptable risk to the nuclear deterrent and the national security of the United States” and that timelines for creating pit production capacity “must be driven by the requirement to hedge against technical and geopolitical risk, and not solely by the needs of life extension programs” for existing weapons.

A 2014 memo from then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sent to the Armed Services Committee chairman in January 2014 elaborates. It says a Nuclear Posture Review found need for “some modest capacity to surge the production (of pits) in response to significant geopolitical surprise,” a concept called “responsive infrastructure,” according to the memo.

In 2003, when now-discarded plans for what was to be called the Modern Pit Facility were under consideration, a wide range of pit production capacities, from 100 to 450 pits per year, were considered. But, in 2008, the memo continues, “the Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC) agreed on a strategy to balance cost, risk and stockpile needs and established the requirement of 50-80 pits per year.”

One factor was capacity at Los Alamos, including its existing plutonium facilities and a then-proposed new “big box” structure, which was killed off by the Obama administration after estimated costs skyrocketed to near $6 billion

The 50-80 pits-per-year capacity is consistent with “the central limits of the New START Treaty (the arms control agreement Obama signed in 2011), and our commitments to Allies,” the document states. The nuclear arsenal modernization plan now underway, and that more pits would support, was part of the Obama administration’s deal with Congress over ratification of New START.

Despite the pit-longevity studies cited by critics of expanded pit production, Hagel’s DOD document refers to “aging concerns” and “the impacts of aging plutonium” in establishing requirements for new pits. It also says that “maintenance of critical pit manufacturing skills may be at risk” without increased capacity.

The memo states that the mandated larger pit-making capacity will require new building space at LANL. For the time being, that requirement would be met in the form of two proposed underground “modules” with an estimated cost of $2 billion.

The proposed pit capacity would also be sufficient to support a planned “interoperable warhead” – for use by both submarines and land-based missiles – according to the Hagel document. Proponents say the multi-use warhead would make the U.S. arsenal more flexible, while billions of dollars in projected costs have raised concerns in Congress.

An NNSA spokeswoman provided the Journal with a statement saying that “pit production is essential to NNSA’s programs to extend the life of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile so that the Nation’s deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective … . It should be noted that the current rate of production is only a fraction of production capacity during the Cold War, and reflects the nation’s reduced reliance on nuclear weapons.” Rocky Flats, closed in 1992 after a scandal over environmental problems, used to make 1,000 to 2,000 pits a year.

Critics: Still no specifics offered

Critics still say nothing has been offered to specifically justify up to 80 pits a year. “You see the stated need and then there’s no solid justification,” said Coghlan.

He cites a 2008 interview with former Republican House member David Hobson of Ohio, who helped fight off the Modern Pit Facility. When Hobson questioned the need for 450 pits annually after years of being told that the weapons stockpile was in good shape, NNSA came back with a new offer of 250 pits, Hobson told Mother Jones magazine. “These were nuclear weapons we were talking about and they hadn’t given it more thought than that?” said Hobson, who served in the House from 1991 through 2009.

The increased production of pits would create “tens of billions of dollars” of construction and new program work at the lab, said Mello. “It’s a tremendous rainmaker,” he said.

And the threat of unforeseen “geopolitical risk”? Mello sees that language as code for gearing up for another Cold War. “Making more weapons won’t make us safe,” he said.

Mello says the labs are already being paid billions to avoid any future technical issues with nuclear weapons under the current stockpile stewardship program, and that maintaining pit-making skills can be done without higher production levels.

“We have long contended that not only is it possible to do pit production at a small scale,” Mello said, “but if NNSA attempts to maintain a larger scale than can be rationally justified, it will backfire again and undermine the ability to do anything.” He said DOD’s pit production goals are based only on “what size building they can put on TA (Technical Area) 55 at Los Alamos.”

He refers to a 2014 report on pit production options by Jonathan Medalia, a nuclear weapons policy specialist for the Congressional Research Service. Citing comments by NNSA and Department of Defense officials, Medalia wrote that the 50-80 pits per year goal was based “on LANL’s presumed pit production capacity” and “not on a strategic analysis of military needs.” Medalia did quote a DOD official as saying NNSA wanted as many as 125 pits a year and that the 50-80 pit level, “while the best that could be done,” was a “significant risk” in NNSA’s view.

Medalia’s report also said that there may be ways to reduce capacity to below 80 pits a year and still meet the Department of Defense requirements, including by reusing retired pits.

DOD responds

On Thursday, Patrick Evans, a Department of Defense spokesman, provided a statement that reiterates many of the points from the Hagel memo. “To continue meeting DOD requirements for deployed nuclear weapons, nearly every warhead in the U.S. stockpile requires either significant maintenance or life extension in the coming decades,” the statement said.

“Consistent with these requirements, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and multiple National Defense Authorization Acts reaffirmed the concept of a responsive nuclear infrastructure capable of producing pits, as well as other components and materials, that is designed to hedge against uncertainty in both geopolitical events and technical failures.

“The current strategic plan approved by the Nuclear Weapons Council provides for the long-term life extension of the current stockpile to address modernization needs regarding aging warheads. To produce enough pits to support the NWC strategic plan prior to end-of-life of the existing stockpile (including qualification and surveillance units), and to retain critical plutonium skills throughout this modernization process, the ultimate goal is to achieve a capacity to produce up to 80 pits per year.”

Coghlan and Mello dispute the need to replace or retire weapons that have ostensibly been well-maintained over the years and with the 2006 report supporting a long life remaining for existing pits. Coghlan cites a study by Sandia National Laboratory from 1993, just after the U.S. stopped real-world nuclear weapons test explosions, that found no example of “a nuclear weapon retirement where age was ever a major factor in the retirement decision.”

Some commentators supporting more pits have noted that Russia makes at least hundreds of pits a year. Mello says Russia and western nuclear powers have different weapons stockpile plans. “Russian pits don’t last very long, and their philosophy is to redo the arsenal all the time,” said Mello. “The U.S. is like the French and the British – make it well with high standards and it lasts a long time. Rocky Flats, a lot people gave their lives for that, but they did really good work.”

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, a Democrat with a seat on the Appropriations Committee, on Thursday provided a statement saying he supports LANL’s mission of pit production.

“Our nation’s goal – which I strongly believe in – is to work toward a world with no nuclear weapons through negotiated international agreements,” said Udall. “But until that is realized, an important part of maintaining our deterrent is verifying the safety and security of the remaining weapons through the stockpile stewardship program.

“Ensuring the reliable supply of plutonium pits is an important part of this effort. Currently, the only place in the nation capable of doing that work is Los Alamos National Laboratory. And, as a member of the Appropriations Committee, I will continue to support this important national security mission.”

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