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 pmalone@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.

(11) comments

Greg Mello

Dear John -- I didn't insult your intelligence, just your knowledge, and also the ethical lapse of not identifying your employer, a for-profit company that makes money from weapons of mass destruction.

You are certainly entitled to your own opinion (but of course not your own facts).

The notion that LANL does what DC tells it to do is so very wrong that surely you must see that. Once a DOE LASO Manager described to me a not-abnormal interagency meeting, that might contain a guy from DoD (who was a lab employee working on a change-of-station assignment), one or two guys from the labs, and a guy from DOE (who was also a lab employee). Looking around the table, most of the 'federal" people were actually contractors from the labs. Sweet!

We will have some public meetings this fall on these topics and I hope you will come. I am hoping to be able to bring one or two of the actors in DC by Skype.

gm

John Bass

I'm still at LANL Greg, I haven't worked in Media Relations in years. I thought that would've sunk in from the other times I've ragged your persistent negativity. But, I guess, if you didn't you wouldn't be able to sucker in the "donations" to fund your nuclear pity party. Boy, you've made a lot of progress, not.
Yes, I am an employee, proud of it. I have a personal opinion and I have the right to express it and, as always, I do not speak for the Lab. Just myself.
Please don't insult my intelligence about pit management and weapons policy. At least I know enough to not use it in a biased and targeted manner to deceive readers.
At the start of my post did I state anything other than, essentially, the world is a dangerous place and the nation needs to have theirs just as much as others? No, you read exactly what you thought it was. You were wrong again. As wrong as figuring the Lab has a say about it's mission. We do what DC tells us, but no, you'd rather characterize your hate and everyone else's in the area that it's all lies from LANL, all the time. What kind of truth have you stretched and warped and distorted when it comes to LANL? I've seen what you've been doing since I came here 25 years ago. Get off your high horse.

Joseph Hempfling

Insanity following Insanity, will it never end, before we do. Building more so called pits and continuuining to add to our nuclear arsenal numbering 10,000 already is almost beyond comprehension. And most certainly beyond Rationality or Reason. AND at a time the world is aflame with conflict with almost un-winnable wars and deliberate instability, every wherel, how can adding more pits make any sense? And to call it a deterrence, simply, preposterous and insult. STOP NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION, BEFORE IT STOP US, NOW ! or tomorrows mushroom cloud may tell us we missed our chance !

Barbara Harrelson

I am very disturbed to hear that making more pits is being supported by our Congressional delegation--or at least the two who have gone on record so far. We must mobilze voters about the very real threat posed by this--and the fact that LANL sits on a seismic fault and that hasn't been adequately addressed yet. I don't trust all the scientists who may weigh in saying that we need more pits "just in case." Agree that this cold war mentality is detrimental to our nation, our standing in the world, and especially to New Mexicans who have such great socio-economic needs that are not being met.

Marita Prandoni

In light of New Mexico's social measures (highest teen pregnancy rate, near lowest child wellness) it is absurd to even have a discussion on reviving a Soviet Era activity that is an evolutionary dead-end. As the article points out, there is a glut of plutonium pits stored at Pantex. Storing what translates into 1-4 lbs. of plutonium in a non-conforming building on fragile volcanic soils on a seismically vulnerable mesa when it takes just one inhaled plutonium particle to cause lung cancer is insane and idiotic. As a mother, it is totally unacceptable to put citizens and especially children at such risk. Our representatives in DC need to get out of their obsolete Cold-War mentality and start representing New Mexico's residents. If they took a poll, I would bet the majority wouldn't vote for a nuclear weapons empire over an economy that works for everyone.

Michael Murray

Without viable nuclear weapons the USA's days would be numbered. Since we can't test them we must rely on computer modeling and guesswork. Do we really want to guess wrong?

Greg Mello

John Bass, do you still work at LANL in media relations or whatever your group is now called, or are you retired? It's not ethical for you to fail to inform readers about your professional role when you write your many comments on this web site. Are you paid to do this or do you do it in your well-paid spare time? I don't think you know anything about weapons policy or pit management, because you begin by writing as if not producing plutonium pits is tantamount to complete nuclear disarmament. It is not. Nuclear disarmament, partial or complete, can and should be debated separately. There is no need for new pit production to maintain a huge, diverse nuclear stockpile for decades to come. With about 4,600 weapons in the active stockpile and another 3,000 or so in storage awaiting dismantlement, an extremely slow process these days, and tens of thousands of nuclear parts in storage, the U.S. nuclear stockpile remains enormous (and long-lived).

Joemtz, are you Joe Martz, the plutonium chemist at LANL? The same person who promoted the $3-6 billion boondoggle called the CMRR-NF, which my organization helped convinced the military, NNSA, congressional committees, and the White House we didn't need? Over one half billion dollars was completely wasted on that project. Now we know LANL never had a decent analysis of how big it needed to be, or whether it needed to be. Shocking, and shameful.

joe martinez

Having been around the block in the technical world a few times, I'm sure the decision as to the need for pits involved hundreds and hundreds of man-hours of study and discussion. The scientists have seemingly determined that the need is there to ensure weapon reliability. The decision makers in DC must involve the administration and the congress and they have access to the best minds in the country. In short, this decision was not made without extensive analyses over many years by experts.
As for the location to produce the pits, Los Alamos is clearly the most logical place. The all-important expertise is there. It seems to me that expansion of the capability to produce the pits in LA is simpler than starting from scratch somewhere else.
As to the morality of it all, that is above everyone's pay grade, present company included. We would all hope there is never a need to use the weapon but in my view it does have tremendous deterrent value. Firebombing of Japan took more lives than the A bomb and we certainly won't do away with conventional weapons.
Amazes me that so many people think the workers at LANL aren't concerned about safety, risk, and the environment. They live here too and have kids and retire and stay. They care as much or more than the Mellos and other people who have moved next to the airport and then complain about the noise so to speak.

John Bass

The fact, and the reality, is: Would you want to live in this country if it did not have a nuclear stockpile..while everyone else does?
Russia and China have continued to modernize their stockpiles and weapons systems...they've never stopped...while the US has not created a suitable replacement nuclear weapon since 1989... just life extension programs.
The US stockpile has shrunk. But no matter how low it goes, it will never be accepted by this country's internal detractors, even if it shrank to nothing.
Did I mention the Islamic world, North Korea? If you consider nuclear weapons madness, consider others on the planet who want/have them.
Moral conviction is laudable, but only when it recognizes the truth of the world around you.
We were the first, we should be the last.

Advanced Nuke

US government demonstrated monumental INCOMPETENCE in international politics - most of the conflicts are artificial created grace to CIA involvement -i.e. destabilized Syria, have to deal with ISIS, Destabilized Ukraine, have to deal with Russians, annoyed China, and set in turmoil all the Arab countries with the new Crusade.
There is no need for new triggers US already has over 10k, that will be just a waste of money - no future for that - and there is no big danger to produce and store them - the biggest possible accident is a criticallity one, with local area few mile radius chemical contamination with Plutonium byproducts reaching only local communities..
-US Gov., misses the main points - nuclear weapons are not the solution for the future Earth challenges - but nuclear Energy is - and ignores advanced nuclear technologies development for electric energy production - needed to feed the 9B people of the planet without being necessary to kill them - as we are doing now.
- The earth climate is destabilized already, see California's drought, and I hope that soon a big-weather-event will hit Washington DC just to wake them up to the new planetary reality - where Nuclear Weapons are nut good, but Nuclear Energy may bail out the human-civilization.
The knowledge for advanced nano-nuclear technologies exists, but US gov. is stubborn in ignoring it and promoting expensive crappy science, in the present LANLhas-no-other excellence than this crappy plutonium pits manufacture.
It can do much better science, with-an-openminded leadership (but-D-gradeUNM-students-a-managers and crappy-HR-practices based-on-words-matching-an-connections).

Dee Finney

This whole idea is preposterous! We need to be looking at ways to reduce our arsenal and eradicate nuclear weapons for good. We are talking about weaponsof mass destruction, we can say good-bye to the planet and all life if we ever even start to talk about using one. The middle east is on fire, there are nuclear weapons in many countries now. We are in very dangerous times and increasing or updating the arsenal is unthinkable. Nuclear weapons are not a deterrant, they make us all very susceptible to world annihilation. We have had enough here in "the national sacrifice area' please let common sense prevail and let's start looking at alternatives to nuclear weapons. Please write or call state leaders and encourage them to reject this proposal in the name of sanity. Look at what our weapons did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Study history, get to know what a threat these weapons represent and how they need to be buried forever. We have a responsibility to the rest of the world, these weapons are unthinkable and pose a huge safety issue for us here in NM. We are living on borrowed time, these weapons are not safe and the plutonium is poisonous to all life, We better WAKE UP before it is too late!!!! Please write or call and let our senators and congress no we cannot accept more pits!

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