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May 18, 2015

Bulletin 205: Congressional study shows multibillion-dollar underground factory “modules” for plutonium not needed at Los Alamos; our press release

Dear friends –

Every single attempt to build a new industrial plutonium facility for making warhead cores (“pits”) in the U.S. has been a failure since Building 371 opened at the Rocky Flats Plant in 1981 only to permanently shut down three years later.

The usual Department of Energy (DOE)/National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) pattern has been to spend an outrageous sum attempting to plan, design, and/or construct some brand-new, highly-touted project, stumble (or be tripped), and then pull the plug.  The Congressional Research Service (CRS) counts seven such failures (so far).  We count eight.  In any case it’s been a “Sisyphean” struggle for DOE and NNSA, in CRS's language.

A root cause of all these botched projects has been a perennial failure to understand that such a facility has never been needed.  On each of these occasions, ideology, ambition, and greed have temporarily overcome sound judgment and realism, a story which continues to the present day.

Section 3112 of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act directs NNSA to ramp up pit production to 80 pits per year for at least a 90-day period in 2027, despite the fact that all the pits in the stockpile will last decades longer.  (It’s about new warheads, in case you were wondering – the so-called “interoperable warheads;” see references here.) 

The previous year, Section 3117 of the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act (law; our press release and explanation) required that NNSA complete and achieve, also by 2027, full operating capability in at least two “modular structures” to “complement the function of the plutonium facility (PF–4) at LANL (assuming the troubled Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility, CMRR-NF, was not completed).  Well, CMRR-NF was cancelled.  That leaves “two or more” underground “modular structures” as the present program of record.

This is an expensive plan – $4.3 billion in up-front capital cost alone, not counting actual operation, waste management, overhead of all kinds, and eventual decommissioning and disposal.  The two 5,000 sq. ft. “modules” are estimated to cost roughly $2.2 billion, or more than half the total, i.e. $220,000 per square foot.  They would be the most expensive interior real estate in the world.

Leaving aside for the moment the long list of nested prior questions that must be asked, such as why does the U.S. “need” a new ICBM warhead, or a new submarine-launched warhead that the Navy itself really isn’t interested in?  Or why does the U.S. need to have so many “hedge” warheads (fewer would mean pit production wasn’t necessary), or so many ICBMs?  Why have ICBMs at all?  Why does the U.S. not decrease its stockpile to the level the military agreed was more than enough 2013 – one-third less than today's – again obviating pit production for the foreseeable future and saving billions in new construction? 

(Of course for many in Congress and the White House, spending money in this way, via these particular contractors in the case of New Mexico's senators and representatives, is the plan.)

Leaving aside, then, a great deal of common sense (but in fidelity to the pit production requirement that has been written into law), CRS has been tackling the question of how to ramp up pit production in a series of reports (all found here). 

Nuclear Weapon “Pit” Production: Options to Help Meet a Congressional Requirement” (May 15, 2015) is the most recent.  Congress will find it accessible and timely.  Our press release on this (“Los Alamos-Supported Congressional Study Suggests Efficiency Improvements for Plutonium Warhead “Pit” Manufacturing”) was sent out today.

More later this week on several other topics, in the next Bulletin.

Greg Mello

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