Los Alamos National Laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb, could ramp up production of triggers for nuclear weapons to levels not seen since the Cold War, if federal defense and energy officials get their way.
The federal government sees the site atop a rugged canyon cliff overlooking the vast expanse of plateaus and distant hills in Northern New Mexico as the perfect place — really, the only one — for an ambitious mission to massively increase production of plutonium pits — the softball-sized cores that can have the explosive power of the Nagasaki bomb. The pits are used to set off thermonuclear reactions in weapons tens of thousands of times more powerful than the pits themselves. The new pits would not be used for new weapons, proponents of the plan say, but to replace aging pits in the nation’s nuclear stockpile.
But questions abound over the proposal. Foremost among them: Are more pits needed? Thousands of pits already are warehoused at a storage facility in Texas that scientists say could be used to supply the needs of the nation’s nuclear industry for many decades.
There are also questions about the costs of increased production, whether Los Alamos has the space to increase production and whether the lab has the ability to safely house the dangerous and delicate war-grade plutonium required to produce the weapon components. The lab facility designated for pit production at Los Alamos is considered too small for the levels of production officials propose, and it sits over a seismic fault.
In a report to lawmakers this month, the Congressional Research Service describes a national defense agenda to produce 30 war reserve plutonium pits per year by 2026, and up to 80 pits per year by 2030.
To put the magnitude of the strategy in perspective, the U.S. has produced a total of 30 pits — all at Los Alamos — between 2007 and the present. Before that, domestic pit production had been at a standstill since 1989, when federal agents stormed the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado to investigate environmental crimes and the facility was shuttered. Rocky Flats had produced up to 2,000 pits annually during the Cold War.
One nuclear watchdog familiar with the idea said the mission at Los Alamos carries the further risk of eroding the trust of countries that, along with the United States, have committed to drawing down their nuclear stockpiles.
“There’s a financial cost. There’s an environmental cost. There’s a cost to our identity as a country, and there’s a cost to our international credibility in nonproliferation,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group.
In the years following the closure of Rocky Flats, a combination of the shutdown and international treaties prohibiting the production of new nuclear weapons halted production of plutonium pits in the U.S. for nearly two decades. Production resumed in 2007, but only at Los Alamos, which produced 11 that year. The lab has never produced more than six in any year since then.
But the same nonproliferation treaties that halted the production of new weapons also prohibited the testing of existing stockpiles. Those provisions have created uncertainty about the reliability of the aging bombs.
One popular analogy among frustrated factions in national defense circles likens the stockpile to a rusty old car in a driveway. It might unexpectedly need to be driven someday, but turning the key to test whether it will start is strictly forbidden.
The U.S. Department of Defense, some in Congress and the National Nuclear Safety Administration — an arm of the Department of Energy that manages the country’s nuclear weapons program — want to replace aging triggers with new ones to ensure the weapons will work if they’re ever needed.
A debate has raged for years between nuclear hawks and nonproliferation advocates about whether the pits need updating. Mello and other skeptics point to a 2006 report from the JASON Defense Advisory Panel, an independent scientific group, that said the useful life of a plutonium pit is up to 100 years. That would give many of the existing pits another half-century before they would need to be replaced.
For subscribers to that theory, the roughly 15,000 plutonium pits manufactured at Rocky Flats and stored at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, are already more than enough.
But proponents of increased production, including some members of Congress, say it is critical to have an arsenal they know will work. And having new pits would provide that confidence.
“Modernization of infrastructure and a robust plutonium science and technology program are key to our ability to respond to emerging issues and threats, to ensure safety of our facilities and personnel, and to assure the safety, security and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent,” said Kevin Roark, a spokesman for the lab, which supports the plan.
The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives believed enough in the stepped-up pit production plan that it included it in the defense authorization bill adopted for fiscal year 2015.
The Congressional Research Service report makes it clear that Los Alamos is the front-runner — if not the sole candidate — to house those activities. It describes Plutonium Facility 4, or PF-4, at Los Alamos as “the only building in the United States with the combination of attributes required to make pits.”
But the building, constructed in 1978 over a seismically active fault, would need expensive modifications to make it big enough and safe enough for increased production, the report said.
In comments at the National Republican Club of Capitol Hill in Washington last year, Jack Mansfield, a member of the federal Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board, called the building “brittle” and not sufficiently constructed to survive a serious earthquake.
“There is a probability, albeit small, that the building could collapse with great loss of life within and with dispersal of plutonium,” he said.
Another building at the lab also would have to be retrofitted to safely store between 400 and 1,760 grams of plutonium for increased production, the report says. The building is currently designed to hold 26 grams.
The congressional report makes no recommendations about how the nuclear defense complex should proceed with the strategy to increase pit production and doesn’t speculate at the cost. Rather, it poses questions for Congress to consider about the steps and associated costs necessary to execute the plan.
“With NNSA, Los Alamos National Laboratory is exploring a wide spectrum of options to fulfill our mission commitments to plutonium manufacturing,” LANL spokesman Roark said. “While using existing facilities both at Los Alamos and across the complex is a short-term solution, it is not sustainable for the long haul.”
Mello questions the report’s conclusion that Los Alamos is the best place to do the work. But he thinks the report makes clear that the decision already has been made.
“Nobody should doubt that this is a high-hazard industrial operation,” he said. “The bigger it is, the more complicated it is, the more likely it is that there will be accidents.”
Mello worries the shifting international landscape of nuclear posturing — Iran’s capability to produce weapons and unknowns about Russia’s intentions in Ukraine — will be leveraged to convince some members of Congress to support the plan.
And he expects little resistance from New Mexico’s members of Congress, who have been largely mum on the plan.
“The citizens of Santa Fe have to wake up and realize that the identity of their metro area is tied up in this,” he said. “It would only take one disaster to end community development.”
Of the state’s five-member congressional delegation, only the offices of U.S. Sen. Tom Udall and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, both Democrats, answered The New Mexican’s questions about the plan.
Jennifer Talhelm, a spokeswoman for Udall, said the senator supports reducing the number of nuclear weapons around the globe, but also supports replacing weapon components to ensure the safety, security and reliability of the U.S. stockpile.
“Los Alamos is the only lab capable of this work,” she said.
Luján said he also embraces nonproliferation, but he believes the existing stockpile should be well maintained, and that Los Alamos should play a big role in that.
But he did not commit to a firm position on the plan described in the report and said Congress should proceed cautiously.
“While this report discusses many of the factors that go into pit production, there are a number of questions that remain,” Luján said, “along with the need for significant discussion and research to determine the best path forward.”
Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.