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"Forget the Rest" blog

Break the silence!
Greg Mello

April 2007

It’s an eerie moment in U.S. nuclear history.  Policy teeters on a knife-edge between disarmament and rearmament, but silence largely reigns.  The attention of policy-makers, the public, the nonprofit community, and the foundations that largely fund and direct them has not quite caught up with events, leaving too many real policy decisions chiefly in the hands of autonomous, largely unconscious, nuclear bureaucracies.  

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) hopes to begin producing plutonium warhead cores (“pits”) a little before Christmas of this year at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico.  If that happens, it will be the first time the U.S. has produced pits in 18 years.  With new pits, the production of whole new warheads can also restart, lighting up all ten warhead factories, labs, and NNSA administrative centers with new work and a fresh sense of importance and legitimacy.   

Of course these events will echo around the world, reinforcing those who say their nation too should have nuclear weapons.  Security will decline for everyone.  

Without new pits and the new production that goes with them, the warhead enterprise faces very serious internal crises related to an aging workforce, declining practical skills, poor morale, aging facilities, and a fading ideological commitment to nuclear weapons, among other problems.  The apparent social consensus that once supported U.S. WMD in the face of bedrock moral values and sound safety, fiscal, and environmental practices has long evaporated. 

For at least the next 16 years or so, only Los Alamos can make pits.  Yet despite the expenditure of $2.5 billion (B) here so far on pit production, numerous problems remain – including serious safety and infrastructure deficiencies long documented by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB).[1]  The DNFSB has no enforcement powers and relies on voluntary compliance, Congress, and knowledgeable public outcry to keep LANL and other sites safe.  Unfortunately NNSA is in the process of implementing a contractor “self-monitoring” system at LANL which is virtually guaranteed, in our view, to produce problems and accidents.  One of NNSA’s stated goals is to overcome what it perceives as a “risk-averse” culture in order to “get the job done.”  One of NNSA’s unstated goals is to make sure that “bad news” is either not written down or else is not leaked to the public.

The situation is grotesque.  The U.S. has almost 10,000 nuclear warheads and bombs.  Thousands are backups, part of a multi-tiered redundancy that puts the “assured” in “mutual assured destruction” (while the whole thrust of U.S. conventional war/nuclear war/missile defense planning aims at removing all traces of “mutuality”).  This is far too many warheads even for Mr. Bush however, who says he wants to drop the arsenal to 6,000 by 2012.  (There is virtually no chance of that happening given the very slow pace of dismantlements today, facility space and skilled workers having been earmarked for warhead upgrades, considered far more urgent by NNSA and its military customers.)

Behind the backups and the backups’ backups are extra pits, roughly 13,000 or so of them stored at the Pantex warhead assembly plant near Amarillo, Texas. 

Pits last a long time.  Results of long-awaited accelerated aging studies show that all the pits in the U.S. arsenal have at least six decades of “service” left.  

So why make them?  Aside from the need to create “end-to-end” work so the enterprise can feed and sustain itself, the other reason for pit production is that even a small production line allows the prompt (“responsive”) production of “boutique” warheads that might be needed for special occasions.  As the generally-hawkish panel assembled by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to discuss the proposed Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) put it this week,

…the possibility of a much smaller but more diverse stockpile (perhaps some of it in a “ready-to-be-built” mode) could represent an outcome of an RRW capability that would introduce additional dimensions into the traditional nuclear weapons debates.

“Ready-to-build,” “responsive,” “small-lot” or “small-build” warheads are not solely a new, Bush Administration idea.  In 1999, when the Democrats were running the show, Congress got a detailed briefing on the idea.  It can be traced as far back as 1992, and a great deal of work has been done into it.  Weapons insiders tell us it is a major reason pit production by the United States must restart – not, in other words, just to make a few more Trident warheads. 

As pit production moves toward startup, some $2.5 billion (B) in new LANL plutonium-related facilities is also in the works.  The flagship project is a $1.5+ B pit production annex called the “Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement” (CMRR) facility, but several other projects are also involved.  NNSA hopes these projects will increase LANL’s pit production capacity enough to build large numbers of new warheads over a multi-decade period, including “small builds of special weapons.” 

The CMRR, widely understood to commit NNSA to pit production at LANL indefinitely, is controversial in Congress.  The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee wants to kill the project, calling it “irrational” and “stupid.”  Republican Pete Domenici promotes it.  The latest word is that work on the nuclear facility portion of the two-part project is now being slowed down, but not stopped, in response to escalating costs, congressional concerns, the sheer irrationality of building two new plutonium pit factories (this one now and another one later) – and the suddenly-declining fortunes of the RRW program. 

What’s eerie, however, is the silence from the arms control community, the Democrats, and the public.  Public testimony at “Complex 2030” scoping hearings, however heartfelt, is almost irrelevant to policy decisions – and doubly irrelevant as regards the imminent restart of pit production and warhead production overall.

Some arms controllers and Democrats actually want a little pit production at LANL, to mollify the nuclear hawks perhaps.  Most simply don’t know what’s going on.  Very few seem to understand the implications involved for new kinds of weapons, both immediately and over the next decades.  Pit production, and the new factories needed to provide more of it, has nothing to do with maintaining the huge, diverse, long-lasting U.S. nuclear arsenal.  Pit production is all about putting something new in the arsenal, or being able to do so “on demand.”  It’s about domination, if possible, not deterrence.

[1] Some of these safety problems, as well as a more detailed policy critique of pit production, can be found in the latest edition of “Informal pit production talking points,” at

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