The mission of Los Alamos National Laboratory, where a lucrative management contract may soon be up for grabs, is leaning heavily toward producing more plutonium pits for nuclear warhead triggers.
Congress mandated increased plutonium pit production in the defense budget approved a year ago. And a December report from the federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board confirms the lab has a green light from the Department of Energy to build underground modules for producing plutonium pits.
The document indicates the lab also has made significant headway in restarting half of its plutonium facility — known as PF-4 — which had been closed since 2013 and could be fully operational this year.
In November, the deputy secretary of the Department of Energy also approved a proposal that included a significant increase in how much plutonium the lab could manage: an increase to 400 grams from 8.4 grams. This increase would be a crucial operating step in enabling the lab to ramp up its production moving forward, according to the report.
While watchdog groups are wary of the lab’s effort to boost plutonium pit production, partly for safety reasons, some lawmakers back the idea.
“I strongly support efforts to strategically reduce our nuclear arsenal through international disarmament agreements,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in an email. “But as we do so, it’s prudent to ensure the safety and security of the remaining weapons by ensuring the plutonium pits are viable.”
Udall said the lab is “the only place in the nation where this work can be done” and that he will continue “to support LANL’s national security mission.”
Nuclear weapons watchdog Jay Coghlan, said the lab is on a dangerous and costly path. He noted the ongoing shutdown of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, the only repository for the residual nuclear waste that undoubtedly will result from pit-production work. The underground waste repository closed in 2014 after a container of radioactive LANL waste leaked in the facility.
That leak, along with other problems, caused the Department of Energy to announce in December that it would not extend the lab’s existing management contract held by a consortium including the University of California and Bechtel.
The lab became the nation’s only pit-production facility after the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, which produced thousands of pits during the Cold War, closed in 1989. The lab produced about 30 pits between 2007 and 2013 before operations were halted because inspections suggested the building’s infrastructure wouldn’t withstand an earthquake.
Plutonium pits are are hollow, extremely lightweight and sensitive shells that create the innermost element of an explosive and act as a trigger for a nuclear reaction.
In March, a directive from the National Nuclear Security Administration sought “war-reserve-quality production” for 30 plutonium pits annually in the next 10 years, and up to 80 pits produced annually by 2030, in an effort to extend the life of existing weapons in the national defense stockpile.
The NNSA requested an additional $891 million from Congress over its 2015 allotment toward this goal. The total estimate for production of the plutonium modules is close to $3 billion, which opponents to pit production contend is a lowball figure.
The Congressional Research Service determined earlier in the year that pit production could be done without the proposed underground production facilities and that the government could instead better utilize the lab’s resources or move production to another facility.
Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, said the financial investment is excessive and indicates further nuclear weapons development outside the scope of merely maintaining stockpile resources.
“Manufacturing pits for the stockpile is not necessary to maintain [the] stockpile,” he said in an email Friday. “Plutonium pits degrade so slowly, as LANL has shown, that they are in effect, ageless.”
Said Mello: “The need for pit production arises because of an expressed desire [by Congress] to make many new Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles [long-range] warheads.”
Congressional support for the pit-production program is not unanimous. Congress is scheduled to act in early February on budget approval for fiscal year 2017.
Contact Rebecca Moss at 986-3011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.