The plutonium pit factory at Savannah River Site in South Carolina will take years longer and cost billions of dollars more to ramp up than previously planned, which could push Los Alamos National Laboratory to make more nuclear bomb cores to fill the gap, watchdog groups say.

For the past three years, plans have called for the Los Alamos lab to produce 30 plutonium warhead triggers by 2026 and Savannah River to make 50 by 2030, but the latter is proving much more costly and nettlesome than anticipated.

Jill Hruby, the nominee to head the National Nuclear Security Administration, said in a U.S. Senate hearing last week that Savannah River might not fully operate until 2035.

And a recently released budget proposal for the country’s nuclear weapons program going into 2022 shows the estimated cost of converting Savannah River Site into a pit plant ballooning to $11 billion from $4.6 billion. A budget note said the estimate could go up.

Hruby’s uneasy admission about the longer time needed coupled with the skyrocketing costs indicate converting this facility into a pit factory is a monstrous undertaking, and the lag is likely to affect Los Alamos lab, said Tom Clements, executive director for nonprofit SRS Watch.

“This is not only going to impact SRS projects but it’s going to put huge pressure on the schedule, cost and environmental impacts of the Los Alamos pit plant,” Clements said. “It means that [the lab] is going to operate five years longer by itself.”

Officials at the nuclear agency didn’t reply to questions about whether the Los Alamos lab could be called on to make more pits for warheads.

The agency’s updated sitewide analysis last year said Los Alamos should have a “surge capacity” of 80 pits. That means the lab would be able to bump pit production to that volume for short periods if necessary.

At the time, agency officials said there were no plans to install the equipment needed to make 80 pits on a steady basis.

However, agency spokeswoman Toni Chiri told The New Mexican in March 2020 such upgrades could happen in the future.

“Just because we have the capability to do 80 pits doesn’t mean we will be doing 80,” Chiri said. “It’s impossible to predict what will happen in 10 years.”

The most pits the lab has made in a year was for Navy missiles more than a decade ago.

Agency officials continue to express confidence the lab will meet its 2026 target for making 30 pits yearly, even as Savannah River requires more time.

Clements said sources on Capitol Hill say Savannah River’s estimated costs could go as high as $14 billion.

That site was originally intended to be a plant that turned old weapons-grade plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel for nuclear reactors. But skyrocketing cost overruns led to the federal government scuttle the project in 2019 after spending more than $7 billion.

“This could be a repeat of the MOX fuel debacle,” Clements said of the pit plant. “It’s totally headed that way.”

In the end, more than five times could be spent on that building than was spent constructing the $4 billion One World Trade Center — all to manufacture bomb cores, said Jay Coghlan, executive director of nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

Extending renovations by several years is bound to put pressure on the lab to ratchet pit production beyond the current goal, Coghlan said.

“I definitely predict it will have a boomerang effect on Los Alamos,” he said.

Clements said some of the new pits would arm a new generation of warheads. That’s a big reason for the push to get the two sites cranking out a combined 80 pits a year by 2030, he said.

The Air Force has a new land-based intercontinental ballistic missile set to come on line in the coming decade, and the leaders won’t want to delay deployment, he said, which could add pressure on the lab.

But one anti-nuclear activist said it will cost at least as much for Los Alamos to ramp up pit production, and that 30 pits will push the aging facility, even modernized, to its full capability.

“We’ve heard that 30 pits a year is the absolute maximum at LANL,” said Greg Mello, executive director for nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group.

Savannah River can manufacture far more pits than the lab, so it should be the sole producer, Mello said.

Mello said his sources connected to the military say the Air Force will roll out its new warhead years later than the current plan. It won’t need the lab to step in with pit production because Savannah River is delayed, he said.

Savannah River is also six miles from the nearest residential area, whereas the lab is only a half-mile from a pueblo, Mello said.

Leona Morgan, a community activist with Diné No Nukes, said she is troubled to hear that the lab could end up producing more pits.

That would generate a greater nuclear waste stream and require more uranium mining, all to make weapons the world doesn’t need, Morgan said. The government should use that money to clean up the legacy waste from the Cold War that’s affecting the environment and nearby communities, she said.

The money also could be better spent on clean energy, education, infrastructure and feeding the impoverished, Morgan said.

“We can’t eat a nuclear weapon,” she said. “It won’t keep us warm at night.”

(8) comments

Dee Finney

J. Robert Oppenheimer

“Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Greg Mello

Readers will alas get little understanding of what is going on from this article. News budgets are tight, and reporters must shift quickly from one subject to another. Facts are now slippery in our culture and in our news media. The postmodern approach becomes the default -- he said, she said -- and often seems the only affordable course to take, leaving readers in the dark as to what is actually going on. For readers who care, a short summary can be found here:

Why should readers care? Because a) this program is of such a gigantic scale that it is already warping our politics and culture, including at this newspaper, and b) pit production at LANL is being promoted by an alliance of neocons, Democratic hawks like the entire New Mexico congressional delegation with the possible exception of just-named Melanie Stansbury, and Nuclear Watch and Savannah River Site Watch and many others. What the reporter has failed to do is to ask these groups where and when they would prefer pits to be made, when and how preparations to do so should be initiated, and what concrete actions they are taking to make that happen -- tough questions for all of us!

We can all say "pits should not be made," and some of us have spent much of our lives doing so, but that and $3.00 MIGHT buy a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, supporting pit production at LANL -- or standing aside, as Ms. Morgan does -- means supporting pit production in SC as well. It means, that is, investment in TWO pit factories, whereas the opposite is not true. The Savannah River Site and facilities would suffice, as NNSA found, under leadership appointed by Obama. SRS is far better from every perspective, including total and life-cycle pit production costs, environmental justice (mentioned in the article), public health risks, and program risks. LANL pit production requires SRS production also. Somehow these NGOs think they can fool the Pentagon, NNSA, and congressional hawks into choosing the worst site as the only site.

What LANL CAN do is to start production sooner. Why do these groups want that? What has devolved in our post-truth culture is that organizations say, "Oh, we don't want that!" but at the same time undertake actions directed in exactly that direction. The news media no longer considers its vocation in quite the same way as it once did; "he said, she said," is usually enough. We understand that it's tough, but in this and so many other ways, we all must rise to the occasion.

Khal Spencer

Greg, presumably you have this?

On Self Licking Ice Cream Cones

S. Pete Worden

Deputy for Technology

From: 7th Cambridge Workshop on Cool Stars, Stellar Systems, and the Sun


Strategic Defense Initiative Organization


Pete Prince

While it is true that “We can’t eat a nuclear weapon,” the salaries paid to manufacture pits sure buys a lot of pop tarts!

It is disturbing that NNSA and its prime contractors can't get a plan in place that inspires confidence that a facility will come online for a price somewhere close to that estimated upon conception but the claim that the funds are completely wasted is very shortsighted. If magic were to happen and 3 1/4 billion $ were pulled from the economy of northern New Mexico each year there would be a lot of people who would find their tables bare and the heat turned down really low.

Erich Kuerschner

It is my understanding that Pete Prince is not without some influence over pit production. I appeal to his sense of ethics and justice in helping resolve the issue of just WHO pit production funds help.

What would happen if he understood Leona Morgan's point about pits producing no fundamental consumer goods and announce to the world that he is in full agreement that pit production funds are indeed a complete waste? And that as an ethical human being he must sever his contributions to LANL pit production, and resign his employment?

In addition, while I am skeptical in changing the opinion of LANL management, perhaps enough readers will be sufficiently outraged to find a better a use of this WASTE. After all, they recognized that pit production produces NO new pop tarts, thus the torts LANL recipients envision “buying” (consuming) are actually torts taken away from others.

Of course LANL welfare queens would LOVE to have the public believe that stopping this welfare scam would result in a lot of “bare tables and low heat”. As an economist, I find this statement preposterous, more of a marketing ploy, than an analysis- an attempt to maintain the viability ( and exorbitant, unjust “salaries”) of an industry on its last legs. With 3 ¼ billion $ of entitlement removed from those doing what the late David Graeber called BS jobs, I expect there to less food and energy siphoned off by the idle rich, and more food and heat available to those doing the productive work.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding” -- Upton Sinclair

"Science advances one funeral at a time. A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” -- Max Planck

Khal Spencer

It would seem at times, though, that S. Pete Worden's essay is on point. One could argue that Uncle Sam spends money so he can spend more money. Lather, rinse, repeat. Are we doing to ourselves what we did to the USSR, i.e., spending to failure?

When we needed to build a weapon for WW II, we went from having no facilities and no prototypes to putting two bombs on two B-29's, all in about three or so years. With slide rules. When we needed to patch up the USS Yorktown and get it back to Midway, we took a battered carrier, fixed it in two days rather than two weeks, and sent it into battle to change the outcome of the war.

It is, to be sure, disturbing that we can't do better today.

Jay Coghlan

To put this in perspective, that plutonium pit plant at the Savannah River Site will end up costing north of 20 billion taxpayer dollars. That’s $7-8 billion for the failed MOX project (for which no one has been held accountable) and 12-14 billion to “repurpose” it for unnecessary pit production. By comparison, the One World Trade Center, the most expensive skyscraper in the world, cost around $4 billion. The Pentagon cost $1.3 billion in 2019 dollars to build. There seems to be no end to the taxpayers’ money that the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration can waste.

Ironic in that all this expense is not to maintain the safety and reliability of the existing nuclear weapons stockpile. Instead, it’s all for speculative new designs that can’t be tested, or perhaps worse yet may prompt the U.S. back into testing, with serious international proliferation consequences.

Another irony is that the Los Alamos Study Group, a self-proclaimed abolitionist group, seems to be promoting unlimited plutonium pit production at the Savannah River Site. Future pit production at Los Alamos, for all of its risks, expense and lack of true need, would at least always be inherently constrained, helping to dampen the growing nuclear arms race.

Jay Coghlan

Nuclear Watch New Mexico

Khal Spencer

We went from zero to sixty in about three years during WW II. Now it takes fifteen years to go from fifty to sixty? Something is seriously wrong with this country.

Well, maybe the advocates will win this one. Hopefully, in fifteen years, something will have made nukes obsolete. I'm just scared to think of what that "something" might turn out to be. As the French found out on the Maginot Line and we found out at Pearl Harbor, its never a good idea to plan to fight the last war.

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