I follow the issue of plutonium pits, and I have uncovered many surprising nuggets of knowledge and insight. Recently, I read an article by Cheryl Rofer, a chemist retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory, titled “Plutonium pits are a critical obstacle in U.S. nuclear plans.”

It was published in August on foreignpolicy.com.

The article examines the current nuclear weapons modernization effort and how it relies on plutonium pits that are planned to be manufactured in Los Alamos and Savannah River, S.C.

This article informs us that Charles Verdon, acting administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the care and feeding of U.S. nuclear weapons, testified to Congress in June that the plans for manufacturing pits are not going to happen on time, in 2030. Instead, he suggests 2035 is a reasonable target.

In effect, he is moving the goalposts for the delivery of new nuclear weapons. Why is this a problem? Shouldn’t we be glad the delivery will be delayed? I suggest reading “Special report: In modernizing nuclear arsenal, U.S. stokes new arms race,” published Nov. 21, 2017, at reuters.com. It provides an overview of why the production of new plutonium pits is a costly, confusing and peace-destabilizing effort.

I scratch my head over this situation because former President Barrack Obama, who kick-started this nuclear weapons “modernization” effort in 2010, had campaigned in 2009 to work toward a nuclear-free world.

Rofer points out that these weapons may not even be necessary.

I’d like to point out that when these suggested deliveries are supposed to happen, perhaps in 2035, 25 years will have passed since nuclear weapons modernization was announced. During this time period, the costs have ballooned from billions to trillions.

Rofer sums up the incoherent scheduling and misleading logic that makes plutonium pits “necessary” by writing: “The United States cannot make its projected numbers of plutonium pits for nuclear weapons. Not now nor the immediate future. Maybe never.”

Barney Magrath lives in Santa Fe.

(6) comments

Douglas Reilly

I often disagree with the commenters; however, on this issue I agree completely. THE LAST THING THE USA AND THE WORLD NEEDS IS MORE AND MORE MODERN NUCLEAR WEAPONS. In the mid 1980s the world's total arsenal was roughly 65,000 nukes. Today it's around 14,000; Russia and the USA are responsible for the decrease. The PANTEX Plant in Amarillo has been disassembling nuclear weapons rather that assembling new ones. This should continue; unfortunately it basically isn't. New START will continue the process of reducing the number of weapons on the ready.

LANL does have the knowledge and expertise to build new pits; however, the old hands that really had the experience have largely retired. The plant in Savannah River that's tapped to build the others, is s facility constructed originally to produce MOX, down blending US and Russian Pu for storage elsewhere; perhaps WIPP. This is a totally different plant than would be required to make pits. These pits are not needed and may never be produced. President Reagan and Chairman Gorbachev said in Reykjavik "A NUCLEAR WAR CAN NEVER BE WON, AND MUST NEVER BE FOUGHT. Let's end the folly of making more nukes and return to the task of reducing g their number.

I'm a physicist retired from LANL, EURATOM, DOE, and the IAES. For over 50 years my field is nuclear safeguards, nonproliferation, and arms control.

Dr.l Douglas Reilly, Los Alamos resident

Khal Spencer

The NNSA estimates the Savannah River facility will not be operational for another ten to thirteen years. (2032-2035, https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/nnsa-approves-critical-decision-1-savannah-river-plutonium-processing-facility ) Given these projects often run late and over budget, I'd consider this optimistic.

So by then, the existing pit stockpile will be even older, as will be the people who once built pits and thus have hands-on (or should I say glovebox-on) experience. Deterrence means our adversaries take our stockpile seriously. At a certain point, one wonders if we take it seriously ourselves.

I'd hoped long ago (and Mr. Mello saw my blog post https://northmesamutts.blogspot.com/2010/04/cmr-r-in-one-thousand-years.html ) that nuclear weapons would become obsolete so we could retire them, much as we discovered that battleships were obsolete after the U.S. and Japan jointly demonstrated, with the Age of Carrier Aircraft, that they were pretty good as artificial reefs. I still think that is the best bet to eliminate nuclear weapons from the world.

Cynthia Weehler

[thumbup]

Jay Coghlan

All future plutonium pit production is for speculative new-design nuclear weapons, specifically the W87-1 intercontinental ballistic missile warhead. This is to be followed by the proposed sub-launched W93 warhead, which is odd given that the Navy’s W76 warhead just completed a major “Life Extension Program” and its other W88 warhead is now beginning a major upgrade, giving both new military capabilities (together around 10 billion taxpayer dollars).

It can’t be overstated that no (none, zilch) future pit production is scheduled to maintain the safety and reliability of the existing stockpile. To function, plutonium pits must implode with near-perfect symmetry. Future pits cannot be full-scale tested because of the existing global testing moratorium, thus degrading confidence in stockpile reliability. Or new pits could prompt the U.S. to resume testing, with severe international proliferation consequences.

Independent experts have concluded that pits last at least a century (see https://www.nukewatch.org/facts/nwd/JASON_ReportPuAging.pdf). Their average age now is around 40 years. Further, there are more than 15,000 pits stored at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, TX.

Future plutonium pit production is not only unnecessary, exorbitantly expensive, damaging to the environment, creates more radioactive wastes and robs from meeting real national security threats (such as the pandemic), but is helping to fuel a new nuclear arms race, one arguably more dangerous than the first.

For more see https://nukewatch.org/newsite/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/plutonium-pit-production-fact-sheet.pdf

Jay Coghlan

Nuclear Watch New Mexico

www.nukewatch.org

Tom Ribe

We have an aging stockpile of nuclear weapons. We presume that they would work if we shot them at China, Russia or North Korea. Are the new pits for new weapons or to retrofit old weapons with new guts? Classified information. One wonders if the Chinese and the Russians are having similar problems or could we become vulnerable to these countries because our nuclear weapons are out of date? Obviously nuclear war would be a no win situation and I oppose making pits at Los Alamos, a delicate environment that should be for research alone. Thanks Barney for raising this topic which few people in Santa Fe seem to know about.

Greg Mello

Dear Barney -- Your note almost closes the circle but avoids the elephant in the room by failing to say that the two pit production sites differ in their expected start dates by roughly a decade. If you want pit production delayed, where should you focus? Yes there will be cost inflation but this has also already happened; at LANL expected startup costs have risen about fourfold over the past 3 years. So what's the bottom line for you? That's not clear. You are not as far as we know opposing pit production here in Santa Fe. (I put it that way because Santa Fe is now an integral part of LANL's pit production plans.) Sure, pit production is bad. Then what? What's your next step? You know how to reach me.

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