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Bulletin 230: Center for Public Integrity publishes important (but mis-titled) series on lax safety at Los Alamos

June 20, 2017

Dear friends and colleagues –

This week, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) is publishing its blockbuster series on lax safety at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The first parts of the series focus on safety at LANL's main plutonium facility (Building PF-4). So far two installments have been published (shown in reverse chronological order here):

I wanted to be sure you saw these important articles and are "staying tuned" for the ones to follow. Patrick has been working on this project for the past year and has developed unparalleled insight into the events he chronicles and their background. We helped with this project, as did many others. We think Patrick did a great job overall. We don't like the titles, and the articles do not get into any of the deeper issues that might have been raised, but that is the nature of mainstream publishing in the U.S. today.

These articles are also being published in abridged form elsewhere, for example in the Washington Post, Santa Fe New Mexican, and Albuquerque Journal. Other national outlets will follow.

The New Mexican title ("Many question LANL's willingness, ability to address safety issues") improves upon the original two titles quite a bit. The lurid title used by the Albuquerque Journal ("Los Alamos nuclear lab shutdown endangers U.S. arsenal") is laughably counterfactual -- "fake news" as the term goes these days.

The original CPI titles were themselves not factual. The partial shutdown at LANL has so far caused no "toll," hidden or otherwise, on America's nuclear arsenal, and there has been no delay in the production of warheads as a result of the LANL shutdown.

An important error in the second article has to do with its representation that production of plutonium warhead cores (pits) is a normal activity at LANL, presumably one with a congressional mandate and funding. There is no current mandate, nor is there an internal plan, to immediately produce pits for the nuclear stockpile. The LANL shutdown must be understood in this context. Nothing important is being delayed. There is therefore no financial cost -- none whatsoever -- associated with the fiascoes documented. The money is paid out of the Treasury regardless of outcome and program status -- or merit. It's a sinecure.

There is a legal requirement -- though no ACTUAL technical need -- to establish the capacity at LANL to produce 50-80 pits per year by 2031, but 2031 is not exactly "tomorrow." There is also a requirement to demonstrate a temporary (90-day) capacity to produce 50-80 pits/year by 2027 (or 2028 in a pinch, with appropriate whining). This also is not an immediate requirement. Many parties in government do not take these deadlines very seriously because they have only a poor, and in the earlier case an entirely made-up, technical basis.

Another misleading aspect of these articles is the representation, or impression that a casual reader might take away, that pit surveillance delays affect national security in some way. Pits are well-understood. Surveillance is useful and logical if nuclear weapons are considered important. (They are important, but only in the sense that we ought to lead the way in getting rid of them. We can go a long way toward this goal by unilateral action.) But a hiatus in surveillance for 4 or 5 years will make no difference in reliability or the nuclear "deterrent." I hope readers understand that the deeper issues with institutional competence, which are extensive, are far more important than a few more tests among the thousands already done.

As mentioned, both production requirements are contested by various parties in government. The need for large-scale production of pits is tied to the schedule and quantity of a planned new warhead, "Interoperable Warhead 1" (IW-1), as we have frequently discussed in these Bulletins and elsewhere. Neither the Navy nor (as we have heard) the Air Force wants this warhead (though the Air Force apparently has taken steps to cover up their concerns). In substantial part, IW-1 is a project designed to bring funds to, and maintain the viability of, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

If you are interested in these subjects please see our web page on pit production investments at LANL. Many supporting pages are provided for those interested in planning documents and other detail. 

LANL cannot be reformed. It will never be safe. The plan is to generate much more, not less, nuclear waste. Most of the missions in PF-4 make little or no sense today. Their expansion makes even less sense. The planned construction of underground workshops for plutonium -- something straight from Wagner's "Ring", don't you think? -- at a planned cost in the neighborhood of $300,000 per square foot of work space, is bizarre. Some congressional staff told me they were waiting for this plan to collapse from its own absurdity. Alas, things don't always work that way.

We expect great things in subsequent articles in the series, but the deeper layers of the onion will not be addressed, we know. New pits, for example, are not necessary to maintain all existing U.S. nuclear weapons for two or more decades to come. At that point LANL's pit production facilities may be too old to maintain even if LANL were competent -- which it is not. So should the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) build a whole new plutonium complex -- a new Rocky Flats Plant -- to manufacture its post-2050 or post-2080 nuclear arsenal, whether at LANL or somewhere else? 

Why does the U.S. need so many kinds of nuclear weapons, and so many, period? An orderly decrease in U.S. nuclear weapons, beginning with canceling the most destabilizing forms of modernization (e.g. the Long-Range Standoff missile and the B61-12 gravity bomb) and continuing with abandoning the ground- and air-based portions of the deterrent, would serve U.S. national security, domestic funding needs, and save several hundred billion dollars. All that could be done quite safely, without Russian reciprocation (indeed, with much greater safety than any other alternative). If deterrence were really the aim, a relatively few nuclear weapons would suffice.

The U.S. and Russia hold 93% of the world's nuclear weapons. NATO states and Russia hold 96%. Russia looks at NATO and sees more than 13 times its own military spending, with more and more of it forward-based in its near-abroad. Their cheap deterrent to U.S. nuclear forces, plus these NATO conventional forces (mostly U.S., again) is nuclear. This logjam can be easily broken, but only by the U.S. and NATO states. Greed and moral turpitude maintain it.

Right now I am in New York, at UN negotiations aimed at producing a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons altogether (press release; see further links there for treaty details). These negotiations conclude on July 7, quite likely with a final treaty. There is a tremendous atmosphere here, full of seriousness, hope, and the methodical addressing of one detail after another by good-hearted people. The U.S. and its nuclear allies (with the positive exception of the Netherlands), along with the other eight nuclear-armed states, are absent.

The fiascoes described so well by CPI are bracketed by these and other far larger events good and bad, which generally are not reported in the U.S. We've got a tempest in the plutonium teapot, yes we very much do, and we have to pay attention to it.

All of you, who have worked so hard for nuclear disarmament in so many ways, please take heart. Your efforts have been fruitful. There is progress. More than 125 countries are here negotiating, and dozens of wonderful activists and scholars from around the world are here as well. Yesterday Robert Oppenheimer's words at Trinity ("I am become death, destroyer of worlds," from the Bhagavad Gita) were thrown at the U.S. mission in a protest with 19 arrests (see photos here).

Whatever your issue, take heart -- and take effective action. 

Best wishes,

Greg Mello

PS Back home, our summer internship program is proceeding apace under Trish's direction. I can only stay here until Thursday morning and will be back in the office Friday.

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