Los Alamos National Laboratory is making headway in its goal to produce 30 nuclear bomb cores by 2026 by hiring workers, modernizing the plutonium facility and looking at how to upgrade the area’s transportation system, lab director Thom Mason said in an online forum Thursday evening.

In the past year, the lab hired 1,277 people — the largest annual addition in at least 30 years — with more than half for newly created jobs, Mason said. It’s part of the push to ramp up production of nuclear warhead triggers — also known as pits — by the target date, he said.

Mason said he expects to hire even more in the coming year, expanding well beyond the current 13,500 employees.

The 43-year-old plutonium facility is being renovated, though much of the work would’ve been required to bring it up to modern safety and fire codes even if no pits were made there, Mason said.

The facility upgrades and hiring boost will continue to prepare the lab for its mission to help modernize the nuclear stockpile, Mason said. The efforts are being funded by the $4 billion Congress budgeted the lab this year, a hefty increase from the prior year’s $3.2 billion, he said.

Savannah River Site in South Carolina will produce an additional 50 plutonium pits in the 2030s, but for now, the lab is the only site capable of making the pits needed to replace aging ones in the arsenal, he said, adding that the work should not be put off.

“We’ve held off on making new pits pretty much as long as we can,” Mason said. “If we delay further, the annual production rate required will go up, and we’ll need an even larger capability. It’s important to start now so we can now produce at that kind of right level and not have to overbuild.”

This year, the lab fashioned six prototypical pits to help fine-tune the manufacturing, he said.

It’s not making the actual war reserve pits that go into bombs, Mason said. For that to happen, the lab must work with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to develop criteria to formally qualify the pits, a process scheduled for 2023, he said.

Thirty pits would be almost triple what the lab has ever produced in a year. The lab made 11 pits for Navy missiles more than a decade ago.

Mason also discussed the impacts of COVID-19 on the lab. The faster-spreading delta variant escalating daily case counts in the region prompted to him require employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 15. Thirty-eight employees who refused to get the shots by the deadline were fired, and others quit, Mason said.



Workers who claimed a religious exemption were put on indefinite unpaid leave, he said.

About three dozen of the employees who were fired or put on unpaid leave sought to block the vaccine order, claiming it violated their constitutional rights.

A state district judge denied their request for an injunction.

Mason said he didn’t like firing employees who refused vaccinations, but he had to think about the safety of the entire workforce amid a pandemic.

“We never like to lose anyone,” Mason said. “We lose their experience, we lose their contributions to the mission.”

The lab won’t require workers to get boosters because at the moment the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t said the third shot is necessary to be fully vaccinated, Mason said.

Boosters will be made available on-site, and workers will be encouraged to get them to stem the coronavirus’s spread, he said.

Mason noted that during last year’s forum, he and the interviewer didn’t have to wear masks because case numbers were declining after the vaccine rollouts. But the more infectious delta variant emerged during the summer, causing a surge that has yet to abate, he said.

Some employees continue to telecommute, although it’s a smaller number than before vaccines were available, Mason said. He added that those who quit are welcome to return as long as they get inoculated, and unvaccinated workers with religious exemptions will have to stay away.

“We’re looking to when it will be safe to have everyone back at work,” he said. “I don’t quite know when that will be.”

(22) comments

Dee Finney

'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds'.

Stefanie Beninato

We can thank our congressional delegation with the dollar signs in their eyes for this new unneeded weapons production. Do you feel safer now?

Barry Rabkin

Yes. I'll feel even safer when we have hypersonic nuclear-loaded missiles that operate more successfully than those that China and Russia have. I live in the real world ... not the la-la land of nuclear disarmament.

Robert Fields

Yes, I do feel safer. Not much, but some. I hate nuclear weapons too but I also understand that if we didn’t have them the world would not be a safer utopia. It would be a lopsided world where Russia and China ran roughshod over anyone and anything in their paths. Read up on Putin and Xi before you decide to just lay down in front of their steamrollers.

Khal Spencer

Speaking of Russia.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/russia-ukraine-invasion/2021/12/03/98a3760e-546b-11ec-8769-2f4ecdf7a2ad_story.html

Khal Spencer

[thumbup]

LeRoy Sanchez

👍

Khal Spencer

Thing is, Robert, I think having a strong and dependable non-nuclear DoD, not to mention the assurance we are willing to use it, is more important. I suspect that if Putin or Xi thinks all that stands between them and planting their flag in the Ukraine or Taiwan is a nuclear war, they will call our bluff.

William Walker

None of the replies to this important story take into account several important factors. Most generally, deterrence does not work as well as diplomacy, however difficult that endeavor may be. Also, the United States is not unilaterally disarming. The LANL triggers make no difference in the balance of forces. Even Henry Kissinger was moved to ask how many nuclear weapons does the United States need. Finally, neither China, nor Ruusia (or Iran for that matter) will push the world to the nuclear brink. I make this assertion relying, not on a rational (sic)-actor model, but on the belief that none of America's adversaries are suicidal states. Their self-interests, however damaging to the putative interests of the United States, will not lead them to a nuclear confrontation. Thinking otherwise renders sound policy making a more uncertain enterprise.

Mike Johnson

Excellent news! We need more, and more nukes, China and Russia are coming for us and we need to be ready.

Reynaldo Morales

Scott,

Thanks for your article “Mason: LANL gearing up to produce nuclear triggers” ; Dec.2, 2021

I realize that you are reporting on what Mason said, but his comment “pits needed to replace aging ones in the arsenal’ is an exaggeration. Mason should elaborate and justify his concern.

The JASON group of experts said in their 2007 Pit Lifetime report (JSR-06-335) for the NNSA that most primary types have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years as regards aging of plutonium. This means that pit replacement in warheads has not been shown to be needed and that long-term pit reuse is possible. If you are building new warheads, then you need a new plutonium pits.

Reynaldo Morales, Ph.D., retired nuclear scientist

LeRoy Sanchez

👍👍👍

Greg Mello

Scott wrote another article yesterday as well, so this issue got short shrift. Mason's statement, "We've held off on making new pits pretty much as long as we can" isn't true. New pits are not needed in the 2020s for any stockpile warhead or weapon system. And it would not be necessary to build more than one production plant, if that plant were at the Savannah River Site, starting production circa 2034, with capacity as planned and budgeted already. LANL's production is "needed" only for the W87-1 warhead, which is not needed to arm ALL the proposed new ICBMs with one modern warhead (the W87-0) apiece. As if that were a good idea to begin with. On the other topic, "Mason said he didn't like firing employees who refused vaccinations, but he had to think about the safety of the entire workforce amid a pandemic." Letting those people go had nothing to do with safety or science. The vaccinated (like me) acquire covid (as I did) and transmit it (as I did, to my fully vaccinated wife) just as readily as do the unvaccinated, as numerous studies now show. The policy of firing those people arises from other, less savory reasons. "Indefinite unpaid leave" equals getting fired unless you change your religious convictions. That's a fascinating constitutional interpretation, but I guess that was never LANL's strong suite.

Barry Rabkin

Except that vaccinated people do not infect other people with the same 'viral load' as unvaccinated people do - as numerous studies show. Every employer has the legal authority to ensure as safe a workplace as possible. As unvaccinated people will discover when the SCOTUS rules in favor of employers mandating vaccinations.

LeRoy Sanchez

👍

Chris Mechels

I hope the workers appeal the decision, as NM District Judges are not a very distinguished lot. Far too political, and beholden to the Democrats, who control all three branches of NM government, with disastrous results. We will continue to LEAD the nation, from the bottom. LANL is simply an extortion racket, like many other NM schemes.

Barry Rabkin

I certainly hope the workers appeal the decision also. Their appeal will lose as both Federal Courts and eventually the US Supreme Court will rule in favor of employers. President Biden is over-reaching in his actions (e.g. acting in an unconstitutional manner) by asking OSHA or other federal agencies to mandate vaccinations at companies. However, employers can legally mandate vaccinations. Why? Because employers have the responsibility to strive to ensure a safe workplace -- and COVID-19 is a REAL global pandemic of a highly infectious virus. It is not a fake, it is not the same as the seasonal flu.

LeRoy Sanchez

👍

LeRoy Sanchez

You are so wrong.

Robert Fields

What Barry Rabkin said - “vaccinated people do not infect other people with the same 'viral load' as unvaccinated people do - as numerous studies show.” You should stop spreading misinformation.

Here’s one study reported recently in The Lancet:

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(21)00648-4/fulltext

There’s lots in that article but households are high infection transfer environments and transmission from infected to others occurs with both vaccinated and unvaccinated — but vaccination reduces viral load, reduces the odds of transmission, and if the person being infected was also vaccinated, their illness shows reduced symptoms and less mortality. Vaccinated simply do not infect others at the same rates as the unvaccinated.

Yes, vaccinated can get and transmit covid but the fact that you may have infected your wife doesn’t mean you did it as easily as an unvaccinated couple.

LANL was absolutely correct to mandate vaccines among the work force. Whatever your beefs are with LANL, you got the covid aspect absolutely wrong.

LeRoy Sanchez

👍

LeRoy Sanchez

You are so wrong.

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