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"Forget the Rest" blog


December 12, 2012 (edited Dec 17, 2012)

Letter from Los Alamos National Security (LANS), the Los Alamos management and operating (M&O) contractor, written between 12/6/12 and 12/12/12 regarding the 12/6/2012 Los Alamos Study Group press release (“Plutonium in Warhead Cores (“Pits”) Stable to 150 Years; Aging Tests at Nuclear Weapons Lab Extend Earlier Results, Increasing Confidence; Results Highlight Lack of Need for New Pit Production Facility”).

LANS comments are indented and in
red; ours are not indented and in green.  Merry Christmas!

Reference:  Los Alamos Study Group press release: “Plutonium in Warhead Cores (“Pits”) Stable to 150 Years; Aging Tests at Nuclear Weapons Lab Extend Earlier Results, Increasing Confidence; Results Highlight Lack of Need for New Pit Production Facility”, 12/6/2012

The reference article provides an interpretation of the LLNL Science and Technology Article that goes well beyond the actual data and evidence provided by this article.
We did not depend entirely on that one publication.

The bullets below are intended to provide a Los Alamos perspective for the key points made by the Los Alamos Study Group.

LASG:  “Thus it is the aging of the plutonium components themselves, not anything else, which is germane to plutonium infrastructure decisions.”

LANL:  First, the lifetime of a pit and the lifetime of the Pu are two different things entirely. The LLNL S&T article addresses Pu aging of small samples, not pit aging and certainly not primary or weapon system aging.  The extension of plutonium lifetime to pit lifetime is an extrapolation and is not supported by the referenced data. Second, infrastructure decisions are primarily germane due to a degrading infrastructure that must be kept operational in an escalating regulatory environment (CMR to CMR-Replacement being an example).
This does not contradict us.  It's true: "it is the aging of the plutonium components themselves, not anything else, which is germane to plutonium infrastructure decisions.”  We did not extrapolate from plutonium to pits.

We have answered their second point ("...infrastructure decisions are primarily germane due to a degrading infrastructure that must be kept operational in an escalating regulatory environment (CMR to CMR-Replacement being an example)" extensively elsewhere.
There is no "escalating regulatory environment."  There is not even a regulatory environment, period.  The only external body with any authority, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), is advisory.
LANS should not be allowed to let needed infrastructure degrade, as they have done while wasting at least one-half billion dollars on CMRR-NF design over the past decade.

LASG: “The probability of prior results being mistaken (despite the extensive peer review they had) and therefore of acute pit failure, is now lower than ever.”

LANL: This is an extrapolation.  The LLNL article examines phase stability and void swelling in plutonium under ambient conditions.  It gives us confidence that these particular aging effects are not a significant concern.  It does not address the remaining aging effects or other alloys under consideration.
Our statement followed Livermore's interpretation, and LANL's does not contradict it.  Greater confidence about key aging effects means greater confidence overall, even if the recently-reported experiments and observations were not comprehensive.  Other data exists, some in the public domain (especially here, pdf), as they are well aware.  Besides, these were always the primary aging mechanisms invoked by LANL and NNSA as justifications for programs, specifically for MPF (see Appendix G, here, pdf) but also in other contexts.
LASG: “Pit production for the stockpile is not needed…”

LANL: Agreed with specific limitations.  Pit production to replace pits in the deployed stockpile due to plutonium aging is not required, nor is it planned to occur.  If this situation were otherwise, the NNSA decision in the SSMPEIS would have established a Modern Pit Facility pathway and be constructing a “large” production facility capable of producing several hundred pits per year and spending billions of dollars a year to do it. 
(emphasis added)
This is a new and useful admission.
LASG:  “…..unless somehow a grossly uneconomical scheme is devised in which the present inventory of roughly 5,000 backup pits, beyond the roughly 5,000 pits now in the nuclear stockpile, is deemed insufficient”
LANL:   This statement makes a key assumption that excess pits in existence can universally be re-used.
No, if we had made that statement we would have used a larger number of excess pits -- over l5,000.  We supplied a table (pdf, p. 19) as a reference with the estimated population, by type, of the pits we chiefly meant.
The facts are that all pits are not equal and some are more difficult than others to “promote” in order to achieve modern safety requirements.  These requirements include the use of insensitive high explosives [IHE], the resistance to plutonium dispersion in the event of a fire and others intended to minimize the consequences in the event of an accident.
These are not requirements.  They are preferences, to be applied in selected cases.  The Navy chose not to use IHE in the W76-1.  One of the most frequent ways unnecessary nuclear weapons spending is generated for the contractors is by the artful use of tacit, unexamined assumptions.
LASG:  “Barring such artificial, created “needs,” no large new plutonium pit manufacturing capability is needed to maintain an extremely large, diverse nuclear stockpile for the foreseeable future -- for generations.”

LANL:  Overall, an accurate statement depending upon a common definition of  “large” and interpretation of “maintain”.
Good.  I could also have accurately said that a large, diverse stockpile can be maintained without any near-term stockpile pit production at all.
The NNSA faced the decision to construct a “large”(meaning a capacity of hundreds of pits per year) production facility in 2007 and the project known as either the Modern Pit Facility (MPF) or the Consolidated Plutonium Complex (CPC) was terminated.  The article in Science and Technology Review summarizing Livermore's plutonium aging study, along with an earlier study at Los Alamos, re-affirms the DOE decision not to build a large-capacity "Modern Pit Facility" and instead pursue a limited manufacturing capability in existing and planned facilities at Los Alamos.  A continued limited manufacturing capability is essential as noted in the S&T article.

The efforts to “maintain” the existing stockpile include life extension programs which will require pits to achieve higher safety standards than may be possible through exclusive reuse of existing pits.
Not: "will require."  The proper verb is "might require."  This is the same problem.  LANS hopes that repetition of unexamined tacit assumptions will hammer them home for most busy, distracted readers.  They will then be much as General Groves described President Truman's decision-making in 1945, "like a little boy on a toboggan."
This could lead to pit manufacturing at the limited rates determined by the NNSA through the NEPA process and described in the SSMPEIS.
Yes, it could.  It could also lead to lower rates of stockpile production, or to no stockpile production at all.
LASG: “It would be counterproductive to plan or design for such a large facility now because the planning and design bases would change so much prior to any necessity for construction that the effort would need to be updated again and again."

LANL:  LASG seems to be applauding the SSMPEIS decision here to do limited, capability based pit manufacturing in existing facilities and planned replacement facilities rather than construct a high capacity pit manufacturing facility, and Los Alamos is in agreement.
We are applauding more than that.
LASG:  “These results are being reported by LLNL, not LANL, and they are only being reported now. ….”

LANL:  The international scientific community has continued its dialogue on plutonium aging in the open forum of the Plutonium Futures – the Science and the Actinides international conferences.  In the July 2012 Plutonium Futures conference, there were at least 14 presentations related to Pu aging from LANL, LLNL, AWE, CEA and Russian scientists, while at least 10 presentations were given at the September 2010 conference.  Since 2006, there have been a number of open literature peer-reviewed journal articles on various aspects of plutonium aging from around the world.
Importantly, these are not sorted, weighed, official pronouncements in the sense of the 2006 JASON report, and none of them is likely to include any classified aging mechanisms that might arise in the warheads themselves, to which LANL cryptically alludes.
LASG: “The plutonium laboratory which is producing these results is slated to be downgraded from a secure nuclear facility under current National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) plans.  This would leave LANL as the sole arbiter of pit aging.”

LANL:  Both LLNL and Los Alamos will continue to pursue the valuable collaboration into the science of plutonium aging and pit lifetimes.  The security status change at the superblock facility will not preclude LLNL from continuing to pursue plutonium gaining experiments.
Good.  Perhaps we were wrong, happily.
LASG:  ”Why were these evolving results withheld until now, instead of being released, say, annually?

LANL:  The Study Group asserts that these results have somehow been withheld.  As mentioned, the plutonium scientific communities have been discussing these studies continually.  The actual scientific report has not been issued or peer reviewed.
Yes, but the general impression given to Congress in the context of spending decisions is quite different.
Scientific results are properly released when a study is completed.  Interim reports are always shared and discussed within the scientific community, and the final results are submitted and peer reviewed for completeness.  This is the normal mechanism of science, and we expect the LLNL scientists will be submitted these data for publication, at which time the data will be properly disclosed to the scientific community.
On 3/21/12 there was this sharp exchange in Senate Energy and Water:
SEN. FEINSTEIN: Let's talk a little bit about pit production. In 2007 [sic – 2006] the JASONs found that the plutonium in pits can last up to 100 years without affecting nuclear weapons' performance. And recent assessments, I'm led to believe, may indicate that pit lifetimes may even approach 200 years. Has NNSA conducted pit aging studies in the last five years?
MR. D'AGOSTINO: Madam Chairman, the -- we are continuing –
SEN. FEINSTEIN: Yes or no.
MR. D'AGOSTINO: And I'm not familiar with the 200-year estimate that you provided, but the original 100 years calculation that we did and the JASONs did validate it, as you suggest.
SEN. FEINSTEIN: And could we please see the results of your pit aging studies in the last five years?
MR. D'AGOSTINO: Yes, ma'am. Yeah, it's continuous. Yes, of course.
SEN. FEINSTEIN: OK. I'd like to see it.
Senator Feinstein, and we, have wanted NNSA's and LANS’ professional, official, findings – not a pile of scientific papers.
It is interesting that nowhere here does LANS mention the 2006 JASON findings (pdf), in which they concurred.  NNSA's cover letter to that report states, among other findings, that "[w]e can, therefore, conclude that pit lifetimes do not at present determine warhead lifetimes."  The new LLNL results add confidence to that conclusion, as they and we stated.

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