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"Forget the Rest" blog

Restarting plutonium pit production: no need, high costs
Informal pit production talking points

Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group
February 24, 2007 draft

gmello(at)lasg.org 505-265-1200

A good introduction to the history and current status of pit production, together with a précis of the need for nuclear disarmament (with a special focus on New Mexico) can be found here.[1]  Another easy-to-read overview[2] of plutonium “pit” production issues can found in the November issue of the Sun Monthly, a New Mexico magazine.  In the present draft, many footnotes are omitted.  They will be added in subsequent versions and in the meantime are available upon request.  Comments are very welcome.

Background

According to congressional budget submittals and recent statements by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), NNSA hopes to begin manufacturing pits for the first time since 1989 in FY 2008 at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).  The first pits to be made would be W88 pits, approximately 70 [changed to 40 in the FY08 budget request] in number, to be made over a 3 year period [through 2010 in the FY08 budget request].  These pits would be made into W88 warheads for the submarine-launched Trident D5 missile system. Prior to W88 pit manufacture, the Major Assembly Release (MAR) certification must be completed.  This would take place in September 2007 (that is, at the end of FY 2007), according to NNSA.  After the W88 production run, pre-production activities for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) pit would commence at LANL.  The RRW is expected to enter production at LANL in FY 2012 if the program is approved.[3] 

Talking points

A.  Resuming pit production has no benefit from the nuclear deterrence perspective.

  1. There is a surfeit of Trident warheads now, and at least a thousand fewer will be needed in the future.  At present the U.S. has over 3,400 Trident warheads.  Of these at least 380 are 475-kiloton (kt) W88s.  The balance of Trident warheads (more than 3,000) are 100-kt W76s.[4]  There are hundreds more W76s than are currently deployed.  Upon information and belief, over 1,000 W76s are to be retired by 2012, when the stockpile will be approximately 6,000 warheads and bombs, about 4,000 fewer than today.  Even the hawkish Defense Science Board prefers a stockpile composed of no more than 20% of any single warhead type; if their advice were followed the W76 inventory would fall to about 1,200 warheads, implying retirement of 1,800 or more W76 warheads.  NNSA is thus proposing to make warheads while retiring (vastly excess) warheads for the same system.

  2. The W76, originally made for a smaller and less accurate missile, is now carried on the D-5 missile just like the W88.  It may already have accuracy equal to or comparable to the W88.  What targets now assigned to the W88 could not be destroyed by W76s after the life extension project (LEP) described below?[5]  I doubt there are many, if any, and of these is this incremental capability stabilizing, or destabilizing, from the classic deterrence perspective?  The difference in explosive power between the 475 kiloton (kt) W88 and the 100 kt W76 is not as great as it may seem, since the radii for a given atmospheric overpressure and shock pressure below ground both scale roughly as the cube root of the yield; the smaller yield can be compensated for in targeting by relatively small improvements in accuracy.[6]  Note that the RRW warhead, planned to replace the W88 as well as the W76, would also not be a high-yield warhead in the same yield class as the W88.

  3. A life-extension project (LEP) is beginning which would substantially revamp the W76.  The LEP would add 20-30 years to the W76 service life and would add some of the “features” now found on the W88, such as at- or near-ground explosive fuzing (for “hard-target kill”).

  4. Pits do not wear out.  Pits do not age in any relevant way.  For all intents and purposes pits are as “good” today as the day they were made.  All other components in the primary stage of nuclear weapons can be assessed accurately as they age and can be replaced if desired via LEPs without making new pits for many decades.

  5. In the event, now judged extremely unlikely, of total Trident pit failure, there are extra pits – in fact there are more extra pits than stockpiled pits.  The U.S. has approximately 13,000 (and possible more) surplus pits of various kinds, in addition to the 10,000 or so pits in stockpiled warheads and bombs.[7]  The Bush Administration has proposed stockpile reductions that will transfer 4,000 pits from the stockpile to the surplus inventory.  A Trident replacement warhead was designed (by LLNL in the Submarine Warhead Protection Program) in the late 1990s using recycled surplus pits.  The number of surplus pits appropriate for this exact purpose was judged adequate in the late 1990s even prior to subsequent stockpile reduction plans.

  6. All parties agree that there are no safety, security, or reliability problems with any warhead.  Programs are in place to ensure that none occur.  None are expected.  Performance margins[8] of all U.S. warheads are adequate and could be improved if desired.  There have been at least 10 internal reviews (during the annual certification process) and at least one external JASON review bearing on this point.  Performance margins could be increased by actions undertaken during maintenance.

  7. In the mid- and late-1990s the Navy openly assumed that all its W88 warheads would be retired, to be replaced by an unspecified new warhead, then in design at both labs.  For its part, the NNSA has said this year it wants to replace all warheads, including all W88s, with the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW).  Thus, before now, neither agency has shown much attachment to the W88 warhead.  Why again must more W88s be made?

  8. NNSA expresses no interest in making stockpile pits other than W88s (and, later, pits for the proposed RRW warhead, which has not been approved).  Indeed NNSA has said it will retire about 4,000 warheads of a variety of kinds, of course along with their pits.  The scale of the current strategic stockpile thus far exceeds the desires of even the hawkish Bush Administration.  The “need” to manufacture pits boils down to the “need” to manufacture more W88 pits in particular.

  9. NNSA and DoD have offered no strategic justification whatsoever for their desire to make more W88 pits.  The number of W88 warheads in the stockpile is arbitrary, having been determined by the sudden and unexpected closure of the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver in 1989.  Surveillance activities have diminished the W88 inventory slightly since then, and will continue to do so in the future, but why does this create a need to “replace” these warheads?  “Replacement” is after all just a semantic dodge.  These are to be new warheads and would expand the inventory of W88s.

B.  The costs of resuming pit production are great.

  1. Pit production will have large, and potentially unlimited, nonproliferation costs and risks.  Especially in the eyes of potential proliferants, their allies, and their constituencies in non-state parties and actors, pit production will be widely perceived as contrary to U.S. treaty obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).  More broadly, pit production will contribute to undermining the image of the U.S. worldwide, and specifically so in the nonproliferation context.

  2. Given the centrality of the U.S. in arms control worldwide, re-starting pit production will contribute to undermining the NPT itself.  It will be just another blow to this important treaty.

  3. At LANL, pit production will “harden” the lab’s future direction, firmly anchoring the lab in the challenges of the past, and shifting its identity toward manufacturing, crowding out other missions and crowding out science per se.  It will also insure continuing scandals, because the mission is not widely supported by the staff and is mismatched to the facilities, the culture, and the other missions at LANL.  It is already having major impacts on the community of Los Alamos.

  4. There is a large backlog of safety and infrastructure problems and liabilities at LANL (see the next section).

  5. Resuming W88 pit production will incur costs, contribute to risks, and increase waste production all across the complex, including and especially at LANL.  Waste generation and disposal (both on- and off-site) will increase.

  6. Starting W88 production will compete for scarce management attention and resources at the Pantex nuclear weapons facility especially.  Some employees are saying that Pantex is not ready for additional dangerous work in its bays and cells.

  7. Many of these costs and risks (not all) could be prevented by a policy of “standby” pit production.

C:  There are numerous infrastructure and safety deficiencies bearing on LANL pit production.

The following review of safety and infrastructure deficiencies at LANL remains incomplete as of this writing but can serve as a brief introduction.  I have focused on deficiencies remaining or arising since the laboratory shut-down in late 2004.

Any complete accounting of LANL safety deficiencies and the on-again, off-again efforts to set them right would be voluminous.  Also, while much information is publicly available, much is not.  It would be a big mistake to think that the problems which have made it into the public record comprise the entire set of relevant problems.

Looking even at part of the public record, the dry and often specialized language used can make it difficult to grasp the full import of the problems – the import for safety, for the success of specific projects and programs (like pit production), and for the public purse.  Those with oversight responsibility would be well advised to review at least portions of the long, frustrating effort to make LANL operations safer.

LANL’s nuclear materials operations center around LANL’s main plutonium facility, building PF-4 in Technical Area (TA-) 55.  This building will soon enter its fourth decade of operation, just as large new missions and campaigns are slated to begin.  At this and other aging LANL facilities safety efforts (and oversight of those efforts) will need to increase just to maintain current safety standards.  Costs as well can only rise.  The bill will be definitely paid – either as investments in safety up front and prior to beginning new missions, or as accidents, injuries or worse, project failure, and large-scale fiscal waste.  Up-front investments must be paid in dollars, program and calendar time, management attention, increased federal staffing, training, and oversight, and in the structural and contractual changes necessary that could make oversight effective.

At present, a great deal of data suggests that DOE, NNSA, Congress, and the site contractor Los Alamos National Security (LANS) are not adequately factoring these costs into their plans.  Funds, management attention, and the timing and priority of investments and improvements have not been reconciled with program schedules.  Even if pit production, to pick the largest of these new programs, were necessary and prudent, long-standing safety problems should be corrected prior to production.  Experience shows that to hope the problems will be corrected while meeting new production deadlines would be naïve.

In our experience the most up-to-date, objective, and professional observers of the safety situation at LANL work for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB).  It is primarily from the files of the DNFSB, most of which are readily accessible at www.dnfsb.gov, that this short compendium has been drawn.   NNSA’s responsiveness to DNFSB’s advice, and LANL’s implementation of what directives NNSA has provided, has been laggard on almost every issue.  Potentially dangerous situations often stretch back a decade or more without apparent resolution.  For this reason it has proven impossibly repetitive to provide a complete listing of the many warnings, reminders, and admonitions NNSA and LANL have received on a given safety issue, even from just this one source.

The cultural problems which have led to this situation were discussed frankly by NNSA Principal Deputy Administrator Jerry Paul in 2005 congressional testimony:

While much of the public attention to events leading to the laboratory stand down [begun in July, 2004 and gradually ended some months later] focused on the supposedly missing classified media, we in NNSA felt that inattention to safety procedures at the laboratory presented a greater problem.  Together they led us to believe that a culture of non-compliance existed within the laboratory.  A careful review of leading indicators for operations of hazardous facilities, that is, events that are precursors to low probability-high consequence accidents, suggested that laboratory performance had been declining.  Some employees simply were not complying with regulations or working with regulatory agencies or bodies, including NNSA and the rest of the Department of Energy.  It is this culture that we, and the laboratory’s senior managers, are trying to reverse.[9]

The record shows that prior to the 2004 shutdown DOE and NNSA had made at least some efforts to remedy the safety situation.[10]  The agency lacked either the will or the capability to do so, however.  The shutdown was a dramatic effort to fix these and other problems.  The DNFSB’s subsequent warnings make it clear that numerous and in some cases pervasive safety and compliance problems persist.

Why?  A full answer to this question is far beyond the scope of this brief sketch; some further food for thought is provided in our concluding remarks below.  One of the most powerful factors at work can be mentioned right away: “hyper-privatization.”  The extreme privatization which pervades DOE (94% of all DOE appropriations go to its contractors, more than any other federal agency, half of this to just nine corporations), and even more so NNSA (which is 96% privatized), is a major cause of the inability of these agencies to provide proper oversight.[11]  More than ten years ago, the House Appropriations Committee warned of a “shadow government” of contractors doing too much of DOE’s policy-making work, leaving federal employees to managing contracts rather than programs.[12]

The outstanding problems which follow have differing fiscal impacts, hazards, and potential adverse impacts on LANL’s programs.  None are trivial but some are small.  Some, however, are quite serious and expensive.  What these issues have in common is they require money and focused management and congressional attention at a level they have not yet adequately received.  Even after the recent hearings on LANL security and their attendant publicity, it is our strong impression that congressional oversight, budgeting, and authorization committees are operating in an excessively optimistic framework concerning the depth and breadth of problems at LANL.  No one should be surprised by the next round of problems and accidents at LANL because the underlying causes have by no means gone away.

We urge NNSA to place fixing safety deficiencies at LANL at a higher priority than new production.  Without making safety clearly primary there will likely be no fix at all, only paper compliance.  In this regard, a portion of the blame for the persistence of problems at LANL lies with NNSA’s “managed risk” narrative, which undercuts efforts to instill a “safety-first” culture at LANL.  The only alternative to a “safety-first” culture is a “safety-second” culture – which is to say, no safety culture at all.

  1. LANL TA-55 PF-4 still lacks a reliable continuous power supply.  Personnel had to leave the building a “half-dozen” times between 6/1/06 and 8/18/06 after lightning strikes caused TA-55 power (and hence ventilation) outages.[13]  By December of last year, “[n]ineteen transient events [had] impacted the facility over the past six months, ten of which led to significant operational interruptions.”[14]  The DNFSB has been warning the DOE, NNSA, and LANL about this problem for more than a decade.

  2. The entire LANL site may still lack a power grid secure from accident and intentional destructive acts.[15]  This problem too has been the subject of long efforts, which may now be finally paying off.  It is unlikely that remaining vulnerabilities will be publicly discussed.  Prior vulnerabilities included remote off-site substations, crossing on-site power lines, a lack of redundancy in on-site substations, and aging lines.  It seems unlikely that all these vulnerabilities have been fixed.

  3. LANL still lacks ventilation and monitoring systems at PF-4 which will continue to function following serious accidents.[16]  NNSA still insists on applying this same loose approach to the Nuclear Facility (NF, or “Phase C”) in its proposed new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility.  In the CMRR NF, NNSA is proposing, contrary to long-standing, repeated, and emphatic DNFSB advice, only a safety-significant ventilation system, on the theory that safety-class fire-suppression systems and nuclear materials containers will adequate reduce the consequences of catastrophic accidents.

  4. As of this writing there is only provisional capacity to properly process transuranic (TRU) waste solutions at LANL’s Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility (RLWTF) in TA-50.  There is reluctance to do so in PF-4 (LANL’s main plutonium facility in TA-55).  Both are apparently necessary to clear out the long-term build-up of plutonium residues in PF-4.  To do so RLWTF must ramp up to 2-5 times its previous output.  This may be problematic, especially with RLWTF’s deteriorated treatment systems.[17]  Under the present circumstances, how long can PF-4 operate before its tanks are completely filled, leaving no room for contingencies?

  5. In a somewhat related matter, on 11/16/06 transuranic acid waste liquids destined for TA-50 backed up and spilled onto the PF-4 floor, causing yet another “orderly exit” of personnel from that building.[18]  The liquid contaminated two pump rooms and seeped into three adjacent rooms.  The pump rooms have “a history of radiological and material condition issues.”

  6. LANL has begun using “transportainers” as temporary vaults at TA-55 for fissile material gathered in the Offsite Source Removal Project and is likely to continue doing so for “several years.”  At least four are currently contemplated.  Safe Secure Transports (SSTs), also at TA-55, are being used as temporary vaults to store fissile material from LANL’s TA-18.[19]

  7. Half (about 4,000) of the Pu containers in PF-4 are not standard or robust.  A vault contamination incident occurred in December 2005 when a friction-lidded canister secured only by tape opened due to internal pressure.[20]

  8. LANL’s preliminary FY07 nuclear infrastructure and operations budget is less than it was in FY06 and is about 1/3 of what LANL estimates is needed for safety.  Overall, NNSA appears to emphasize mission over infrastructure at LANL and is delaying and scaling back reinvestment in ventilation and fire safety in PF-4 and other buildings.[21] As the WSR for 9/15/06 put it,

    [T]he next test is how NNSA and the new LANE management reconcile the budget issues, and specifically, how they evaluate the mission vs. infrastructure trade-offs.  It is unclear how NNSA and LANL could achieve their long-term nuclear mission objectives without starting in FY-07 to substantively address longstanding issues with infrastructure and safety programs.

    NNSA apparently needs to revisit the timing of, and the scale of investment in, the TA-55 Reinvestment Project at LANL (Project 08-D-804) relative to this facility’s proposed new missions (pit production and new campaigns in MOX preparation and Pu-238 heat sources).  A new start in FY08, physical construction is not supposed to be complete until the 4th quarter of 2011.  The project is expected to cost a total of $28.6 million (M); one-third of the previous cost estimate of $77.5 M.[22]

  9. LANL lacks adequate fire-fighting capability and lacks a long-term contract for same with Los Alamos County.[23]  As recently 2/1/07 the DNFSB wrote “The lack of a long-term contract with Los Alamos County has impeded improvement of fire response capabilities since 1997. This concern is heightened since the pre-contractual cost agreement was recently allowed to lapse” (emphasis added).

  10. LANL lacks adequate on-site transportation standards and plans.[24]

  11. LANL lacks numerous up-to-date safety bases documents governing the safe operation of its nuclear facilities.[25]  LANL uses a mix of subcontractors and its own staff to write, review, and update these safety bases, increasing the likelihood that staff are not educated regarding them.  LANL extensively carries “unresolved safety questions” (USQs) and many other complex procedural “patches” without closure in order to get around DOE orders and applicable federal law.  It is not too much to say that LANL has a long-standing and strong resistance to rules, a cultural quality that is antithetical to the goal of “high reliability” in safety performance.[26]

  12. LANL lacks a industry-standard criticality safety program for its 564 fissile materials operations and will take 2-3 years to acquire one.[27]

  13. LANL still has 20,000 or more drums of TRU waste stored above-ground in tents at TA-54, one mile upwind from the community of White Rock.  Many thousands of other drums are still “temporarily” buried at TA-54, and further thousands of additional drums are slated to arrive at TA-54 for above-ground storage, adding up to about 50,000 drums now or soon to be stored above-ground at TA-54.

    NNSA believes a large earthquake would or could cause drums containing about one-fourth of the current above-ground TA-54 radioactivity to rupture.  NNSA has analyzed roughly 18 accident scenarios in which the maximum exposed offsite individual (MEOI) could receive doses (committed effective dose equivalent, CEDE) exceeding 100 rems. [28]  The predicted hazard from accidents at TA-55 is comparable.  The DNFSB offers no estimate of the possible damage that would result from terrorist and sabotage scenarios at either site; sabotage scenarios are a particularly thorny problem and cannot be fully eliminated by any personnel reliability program.  Stress and its concomitants are serious problems at LANL.

  14. There is still no clear path forward for large contaminated items like gloveboxes, of which about 300 are now stored at TA-54.[29] 

  15. There is no clear plan for replacing equipment and reconfiguring rooms in PF-4 to increase pit production capacity as planned while safely making pits at the same time.  Currently 30-60 contaminated gloveboxes need removal.  It can take up to a year to remove one.[30]

  16. Federal oversight at LANL is declining in quantity and quality due to low budgets, personnel transfers, and substitution of a contractor self-monitoring system for federal oversight.[31] [32]  Whistleblowers allege that LANL is widely failing to meet standards for quality assurance and safety.  We believe problem awareness, reporting, and response may be suppressed to meet production incentives and retain contracts.  We note that incident reports are not publicly available, virtually assuring long-term lack of accountability. 

  17. Some LANL facilities are relatively vulnerable to attack from the ground; most are vulnerable from the air. 

  18. Seismic issues at LANL are far from resolved.[33]  Vertical accelerations exceeding 1 gravity have been predicted on the Pajarito Fault Zone.[34]  Structural integrity of tuff across the site is uncertain.  The LANL Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Assessment (PHSA) has been repeatedly delayed; existing reports can be difficult to get.  We believe the CMRR EIS seismic analysis underestimates the probability of magnitude 7 earthquakes by a factor of 27, based on subsequent LANL research presented under the auspices of the Los Alamos Geological Society.[35] 

  19. Despite these unresolved problems, LANL has large new near-term Pu missions competing for scarce space, resources, and management attention in PF-4, including:
  1. Preparation of 80 kg/yr of Pu oxide feedstock for MOX startup at the Savannah River Site (SRS);

  2. A new 9 kg/yr Pu-238 heat-source campaign;[36] and of course

  3. Pit production.  LANL aims to “demonstrate” a “surge” level of 2 trial pits/month this quarter or next, to initiate actual production in early FY08, and to complete stockpile production of 70 (changed to 40 in the FY08 Congressional Budget Request)[37] W88 pits by FY09 (changed to FY2010 in the same document), after which re-tooling for the proposed (but not authorized or funded) Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) is slated to begin.[38]

Concluding remarks about LANL safety culture

In the summer of 1953 two Los Alamos guards wrote a letter to President Eisenhower complaining about a variety of problems at Los Alamos:

[L]arge amounts of government property [are] being stolen or used illegally because this is one of the few government installations that does not allow searching of vehicles leaving the project.

This letter sounds as if it were written last year, not 54 years ago.  The letter mentioned other problems, including “low morale within the security forces, questionable disbursement of government money, approval of inferior construction, and the immorality of many of the employees on the Hill.”[39]  The two “whistleblowers” were fired. 

The moral of this little vignette, which could be amplified with many other stories, is that the problems at Los Alamos run very deep.  After all that has been said by safety professionals, cognizant officials, and oversight committees regarding LANL, much more remains. 

Los Alamos was purposely built in an isolated place.  In 64 years, the nature of that isolation has changed.  Today, thousands of commuters head up “The Hill” daily from Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties.  In fact, slightly more LANL employees live in these counties than in Los Alamos itself. Los Alamos nevertheless remains socially, economically, politically, and morally isolated from the communities around it.  In some ways this isolation is growing, right along with income disparities in the vicinity, in the state, and in the country as a whole. 

LANL is remote as well from other high-technology employers and first-rate universities, which has also been a factor in creating its particular management culture, quite different from Livermore’s.  Attempting to create a scientific “Shangri-La” in an isolated location, a goal of Oppenheimer’s, has had cultural consequences.  One such consequence is “management inbreeding.” The following testimony is not at all atypical.

I'm board certified in safety and industrial hygiene.  I provided safety services from Jakarta to Germany, up in the Arctic, and last year I was in Baghdad on a volunteer mission to support the Army.  I've worked at Hanford, Rocky Flats.  I've been at Lawrence Livermore, and recently I spent five 11 years at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.  I find my experience at Los Alamos was a bit disturbing. …there is a culture there that's problematic. And that I had hoped with the transition of the contract that that would go away.  I don't believe it has.  I refer to it as managerial inbreeding, if you will.  There are certain avenues of management that is very -- in my opinion, very self-serving.  I brought to light some problems over a period of months, requesting safety standards, requesting intervention for fundamental safety, equipment from my team. And it was ignored, and it was ignored and it was ignored.  It made its way, I believe, to Pete Nanos, the director, and they fixed it.  It reached the right level.  It was corrected quickly.  But as a result of that, you know, I found myself kind of shoved off in the corner, not given assignments, et cetera.  I will spare you the details.  I decided to leave.  And I paid a bit of a price for that, as did my family.  The message I would like to bring – and incidentally, I brought these issues to bear to NNSA, and to their credit, they took them seriously, and they required Los Alamos to do an investigation, which they are now doing.  But the point being, they still are able to work in a vacuum.  It's very difficult to get third-party intervention and attention, for even baseline needs, in some cases…I find the thought of awarding Los Alamos in particular, a huge additional responsibility without additional accountability to be very concerning and very troublesome.  I think I would request that NNSA take a look at that there are no contractual loopholes, which I ran into.  Los Alamos gets to do investigation, not DOE…There needs to be some means of evaluating what's going on internally and stepping in and correcting it. I believe DOE tries to do that.  I believe they are also shut out, and there's a price to pay for questioning the authority at Los Alamos. [40]

Today LANL and its adjacent community of wealthy scientists[41] live very near impoverished communities which have among the very worst levels of drug-related crime and social problems in the U.S.  Educational and career opportunities for the children of these two communities could hardly be more divergent.  While relations between the two communities are complex, they certainly include widespread resentment in the Espanola Valley.  There is little “mission buy-in” in Espanola, to put it mildly, and no love affair with “national security.”  “Security” simply means something quite different to poor families a few miles from Los Alamos than it does to NNSA. [42]

Espanola Mayor Joseph Maestas has recently alluded to some of these disjunctions:

Over 63 years ago, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, referred to as the “Lab,” was established with many Northern New Mexico residents in the immediate area serving as employees.  In the beginning with the Manhattan Project, only the uneducated local residents were selected for menial jobs in the name of national security.  Over the years, several generations of these residents have helped to make the Lab what it is today, even at the expense of their own health resulting from exposure to job-related health risks.  Some past employees have died of work-related illnesses before they or their families could benefit from Federal government worker-health compensation programs.…The economic impacts of the lab outside of Los Alamos County have not been realized.  Regional, community-based initiatives associated with the Lab contract have not been very effective....Despite the presence of the Lab and the billions of dollars from its budgets, the socioeconomic disparities that exist within the Lab’s workforce area remain substantial and are expected to worsen. [43]

Stark disjunctions like this lead to all kinds of problems and tensions.  To sum up a longer argument, LANL cannot be healed until the region is healed.[44]

LANL is also directly adjacent to tony Santa Fe, which does not support pit production politically or socially and never has.  Literally hundreds of public gatherings have been held in Santa Fe and its environs to discuss, debate, testify against, or protest LANL activities, especially waste disposal and plutonium pit production.[45]  Not one attendee at the August 2006 public hearings regarding the draft Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement (SWEIS) for continued operation of LANL spoke in favor of even retaining a nuclear deterrent, let alone manufacturing plutonium pits at LANL – including attendees at the Los Alamos meeting.

Support for pit production in Los Alamos itself is weak.  A smattering of public figures in Los Alamos has openly questioned the wisdom of bringing this mission to LANL, even during recent political races.  These public figures include the Republican candidate for Congress, a Republican member of the County Council, and a recently-elected school board member.  It is increasingly understood in the community that pit production is harming LANL as a scientific laboratory.  The Los Alamos County Manager has written NNSA questioning why it is necessary to continue disposal of radioactive waste in the County, which hosts the largest disposal site in the states of New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and Arizona.  Tensions over LANL physical security measures have resulted in County litigation against the DOE and in dozens of acrimonious public meetings which have pitted Los Alamos business and political leaders against NNSA.

All these disharmonies and others not mentioned strongly affect prospects for a “high-reliability” safety culture at LANL, because to achieve such a culture people must believe and invest in their jobs, at the very minimum.  Morale at LANL is low; staff members are resigning both voluntarily and possibly soon involuntarily (as budgets fall and funds are transferred to pit production-related investments in buildings, equipment, and security as well as to corporate operating fees and related contract costs).  Workplace cynicism is high, perhaps as high as it has ever been.  Uncertainty about the future is widespread.  Many staff never understood that they were being recruited to work at and live near what increasingly looks and feels like a weapons production facility.  There is a widespread crisis of self-understanding as this truth among others becomes clear, and there is personal disinvestment.  “Psychological distancing” has been a reality at Los Alamos for decades but it is intensified at the present historical moment.

No matter what NNSA does or does not do in Los Alamos, the world is changing rapidly and dramatically to a new security paradigm that does not provide much social or intellectual support for personal investment in new weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  We all now face environmental threats that are nothing short of apocalyptic, and a good many scientists at LANL know this.  Furthermore LANL scientists know, even if NNSA does not quite yet appreciate, that the Cold War is over and the pits made at Rocky Flats will last longer than any of us will live.  Thus the entire effort can easily acquire the quality of a dangerous, if personally lucrative, farce.

Creation of a high-reliability culture no doubt requires, at a minimum, a shared perception of social support and legitimacy for the enterprise itself.  This is now gone.  Management efforts to replace genuine social legitimacy with empty slogans and various forms of worker indoctrination are failing and exacerbating the problem. 

D. There are other rationales and motives for resuming pit production.

  1. Pit production will “exercise” the whole warhead complex.  Exercising – finding something to do for – the warhead complex is however not an end in itself.  It serves other ends and stands or falls with them.  We should reject this justification on plain logical grounds.

  2. Pit production will create a “responsive infrastructure,” presumably by providing programs, new and renewed facilities, stable if not increased funding, a sense of purpose and direction, and renewed political and social legitimacy.

    The theory advanced in the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review that a “responsive infrastructure” provides deterrent value in itself must be firmly rejected.  The idea that the smooth operation of a nuclear production complex, independent of warheads produced, will “defeat enemies, deter adversaries, dissuade competitors, and assure allies” is absurd on its face.  It’s equivalent to saying that spending money creates security.  Once the benefits of producing new warheads are clearly articulated, if that is possible, these benefits must be evaluated in relation to costs – financial, environmental, security, international, and moral.  It is the difficulty, embarrassment, and real security costs of articulating the benefits of making new warheads that leads to an attempt to define security in terms of investment per se.  Here again the warhead enterprise is not the means, but the end.  We support it in order to support it; security is supposedly the fortunate byproduct.

  3. Pit production will provide active, emergency pit production capability in the event of the relatively sudden failure of one or more classes of deployed pits.  The recent JASON review has now removed this rationale.  Even if failure were to occur in one type of pit against all expert prediction, there would no lack of “nuclear deterrent” since we have other warheads and bombs, plus reserve pits as noted above.  If this impossible scenario did occur, LANL production could not provide enough capacity to fix the problem anyway.

    The current policy is to retain at least two kinds of warheads for each of four delivery modes (ICBMs, SLBMs, bombers, and cruise missiles).[46]  If the role of nuclear weapons were what most people believe it to be – an existential or retaliatory deterrent – there would be no need for such redundancy.[47]  Loss of function in any kind of nuclear explosive package (NEP), or in two, would hardly diminish the U.S. “deterrent.”[48]

    In sum, the desire for emergency capability and vast redundancy turn out to embody assumptions about the centrality, versatility, and aggressiveness of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy.  Saying that we must make or preserve each and every kind of nuclear weapon and also have a plan to replace each and every one with a fully-functional equivalent on demand seems an obsession akin to madness.

  4. An active production facility will allow production of small builds of pits for special weapons which can help provide nuclear military capabilities not currently in the stockpile.  This is what a majority in Congress does not want and which therefore NNSA says it does not want to implement at this time.  The acquisition of such weapons is widely thought to have particularly severe international costs, and the recognized ability to acquire them is a proliferation cost of starting pit production.  It is a major reason for starting pit production.  The concept of special weapons corresponds to theories of nuclear employment which most people in Congress and elsewhere consider to be quite dangerous and counterproductive.  Unfortunately, the provision of any pit manufacturing facilities whatsoever, at any scale, will provide this capability when integrated with the operation of facilities which already exist and are capable of doing such work today.[49]

  5. Pit production will transmit knowledge, culture, and nuclear weapons ideology to new staff; it will foster the recruitment, training, and retention of staff at LANL in particular and across the weapons complex as a whole.  This argument is powerful in general but not so much in the case of making a few W88s.  It is really necessary to have new kinds of weapons to create the “end-to-end work” that will accomplish these goals.  Making a few dozen W88s for a few years doesn’t ring enough bells.  Such a production run is rather meant to be a holding pattern to keep the LANL plutonium facility “warm” as it gears up to manufacture a new warhead – the RRW – in large numbers.  The RRW program, in contrast to the W88 program, is the one that would substantially meet these internal goals.  No doubt any production would help somewhat, however.

  6. Pit production will provide income for contractors, political contributions and other benefits for some members of Congress, and federal spending in congressional districts and in particular states.  Of course private gain, pork-barrel spending, and the provision of sinecures should be rejected as legitimate policy motives, however powerful they may be.

  7. Pit production will provide legitimacy for the warhead enterprise as a whole and for LANL in particular, since if something is produced at great cost and sacrifice it must possess great value.  While it is not expressed in these terms, producing pits is meant as a blow against the core idea of the NPT – which is that nuclear weapons are not legitimate possessions (immediately and permanently for 186 countries, and permanently, albeit at an unspecified later time, for the other 5 NPT signatories).  The NPT violation embodied in pit production is not incidental but is a major purpose of that production.  What is the purpose of providing this show of legitimacy?  This brings us back full circle to the other justifications.

In conclusion, the minimum rate of pit production acceptable to NNSA and DoD is likely to be the maximum allowed by Congress.  “Whatever I can get, I need.”  There is no technical reason that requires pit production at all for decades to come, even without planned stockpile reductions. When up to 450 pits per year was considered feasible, that was the minimum.  Today, 125 pits per year is the minimum, but this figure is predicated on policies and hidden assumptions advanced and held unilaterally by the NNSA.  Legally, technically, and militarily it rests on little or nothing.


[1] http://www.lasg.org/campaigns/PUPitProd.htm.

[2] http://www.eldoradosun.com/Archives/11-06_issue/Mello.htm.

[3] Department of Energy (DOE), FY2007 Congressional Budget Request, Volume 1, pp.  187-196 and elsewhere; Michael Michell, NNSA, personal communication, 12/17/06.

[4] There is no need to destructively dissemble more than one W88 per year and we believe this is what has occurred.

[5] The W76 life-extension project (LEP) now beginning will add the same or better arming, firing, and fuzing components as are in the W88.  In particular, ground-burst capability is being added.

[6] So in terms of destructive radius the 475 kt W88 is only 68% more capable than the 100 kt W76.

[7] There are between 12,000 and 20,000 pits at Pantex, the actual number probably closer to the lower end of this range.  At the Study Group we have been using the 13,000 number, which we believe to be a fairly conservative estimate.

[8] Performance margin: the degree by which the explosive power of the primary stage of a warhead or bomb exceeds the threshold necessary to “ignite” the rest of the nuclear explosive.

[9] Testimony of Jerry Paul, Principal Deputy Administrator for National Nuclear Security Administration, Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Hearing on Los Alamos National Laboratory, May 5, 2005 http://www.nnsa.doe.gov/docs/congressional/2005/2005-05-05_Jerry_Paul_OI_testimony.pdf.

[10]For two examples see DOE Office of Price-Anderson [PA] Enforcement to LANL, 7/7/03; Linton Brooks, Preliminary Notice of [PA] Violation [to LANL], 6/21/04, at http://www.hss.energy.gov/Enforce/PAEnforce.  The present review does not include the record of DOE self-assessed safety violations available from this source.

[11]See Damon Hill and Greg Mello, “Competition – or Collusion?  Privatization and Crony Capitalism in the Nuclear Weapons Complex,” http://www.lasg.org/NNSAPrivatization.pdf, p. 17; Los Alamos Study Group “About the LANS Partners, http://www.lasg.org/technical/LANS.htm.

[12] Ibid., p. 16.

[13]DNFSB weekly site report (WSR) 8/18/06.  See also Keay Davidson, “Nuke lab evacuations cited in federal probe; Incidents point to safety concerns in plutonium handling,” Sep 28, 2006, San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/09/28/BAG3CLE5941.DTL

[14]DNFSB WSR 12/15/06:

Weaknesses in the TA-55 electrical distribution system leave the facility vulnerable to power loss from even minor grid transients. Nineteen transient events have impacted the facility over the past six months, ten of which led to significant operational interruptions. These events cause unplanned interruption of hazardous work; they adversely affect the operability of facility safety systems, particularly confinement ventilation; and while the transient lasts milliseconds, orderly recovery typically takes about 2 hours. Near-term, the facility is pursuing installation of a power conditioner and/or capacitor bank to reduce sensitivity to short duration transients. Longer-term, planned switchgear upgrades are intended to automatically transfer key loads to a backup diesel generator when offsite power is interrupted or lost (site rep weeklies 10/13/06, 4/2/04).

DNFSB WSR 10/13/06 states that

the LANL proposal [to install improved switchgear to improve electrical reliability…has been in the works for several years.  When completed, the modification will automatically close breakers to restore off-site power, if available, and will automatically transfer loads to a diesel generator if off-site power is not available. This would help minimize confinement ventilation upsets, such as those that occurred frequently this past summer.

DNFSB WSR 4/2/04: 

NNSA has accepted a LANL proposal to upgrade the TA-55 electrical switchgear so that power would be automatically restored to key electrical loads, like confinement ventilation; however, funding remains uncertain (site rep weekly 2/6/04). NNSA headquarters has deferred to the Site Office on funding. The situation resembles that in 1996, when the Secretary of Energy committed to the Board to upgrade emergency power for TA-55 glovebox ventilation, but the issue was never resolved. Separately, LANL is working with the staff to address questions on ventilation seismic capacity and on conservatism in leak path factors in the proposed safety basis.

DNFSB WSR 2/6/04:

Last week, the NNSA Site Office endorsed a LANL recommendation to install a new diesel generator and upgrade TA-55 electrical switchgear so that power is automatically restored to key electrical loads, like confinement ventilation. LANL estimates that this will reduce risk by 18% and 6.5% to the public and workers, respectively. A funding source is to be determined. LANL’s electrical evaluation is based on the proposed new TA-55 safety basis, submitted nearly two years ago and still not acted upon by NNSA. At this point, the proposed safety basis itself needs updating (Site Rep weekly 10/24/03). Safety basis updates are expected to be proposed and approved once per year, but this has rarely occurred for LANL nuclear facilities. The current TA-55 safety analysis report and technical safety requirements (TSRs) were approved in 1996 and 1999. The need for this particular electrical power evaluation arose from a DOE commitment to the Board made in March 1996 and then revised in May 2001, when it was linked to the long-delayed new safety basis.

See also the DNFSB December 5, 1996 Letter to DOE Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs forwarding 10/11/96 Report re: Los Alamos National Laboratory TA-55 Facility Electrical and Ventilation Systems (http://www.dnfsb.gov/pub_docs/lanl/sir_19960815_la.html) and the DNFSB May 5, 1995 Letter to DOE Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs forwarding 2/22/95 Report re: Los Alamos National Laboratory - Chemistry and Metallurgy Research and Technical Area 55 (http://www.dnfsb.gov/pub_docs/lanl/sir_19950126_la.txt).  We have not yet inquired regarding any earlier DNFSB correspondence (not on the DNFSB web site) on the same subject. 

[15] On 9/15/06 the DNFSB WSR noted that power infrastructure improvements, requested a decade earlier (see references in the previous footnote, were “underway.”  Now (in February, 2007),

[A] project started nearly two years ago to reduce the chances of power interruption for Los Alamos National Laboratory and the county is nearly complete…[W]ith the completion of an additional nine-mile transmission line and other improvements, the system has a little more margin of safety and reliability.

"Now the county has the capability of two delivery points, one from the east and one from the west," said Emilio Racinez, the laboratory's electrical distribution engineer. "There will be a robust system. The effect of disturbances from the outside will now be minimized."

The laboratory and the county can now be powered by any two of three substations, a redundancy that provides insurance against single point failures.

(from Roger Snodgrass, “Power line boosts reliability,” 2/9/07 Los Alamos Monitor, http://www.lamonitor.com/articles/2007/02/02/headline_news/news01.txt.)

[16] The trail back through the years in numerous DNFSB reports, letters, and recommendations begins at WSR 9/15/06 and the DNFSB letter from the board (DNFSB LTR) of 2/1/07, http://www.dnfsb.gov/pub_docs/lanl/cor_20070201_la.pdf.  This letter states

Under the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board's Recommendation 2004-2, Active Confinement Systems [this important Recommendation is at http://www.dnfsb.gov/pub_docs/dnfsb/rec_2004.html], the confinement ventilation system for the Plutonium Facility and the system design for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility are being evaluated by NNSA. These high-priority evaluations have been significantly delayed. NNSA needs to ensure that these efforts are completed and that any findings are resolved in a timely manner.

Eleven and twelve years before some of the same issues were being highlighted (see DNFSB 12/5/96 Letter to DOE Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs, op. cit., and DNFSB Technical Report of 5/31/95, Overview of Ventilation Systems at Selected DOE Plutonium Processing and Handling Facilities, http://www.dnfsb.gov/pub_docs/dnfsb/tr_19950320.html.

DNFSB Recommendation 2004-2 states in part;

A number of existing facilities (including the TA-55 Plutonium Facility…) rely on passive or non-safety related confinement systems. More importantly, designs for proposed facilities (including Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility…) are based on the same passive confinement concept and use an assumed quantitative value for the building leak path factor as a design criterion.

These examples illustrate two primary concerns. First, a reliance on calculations that do not appropriately account for large uncertainties is not defensible. These analytically determined building leak path factors are based on a combination of several computer programs that were not specifically designed for this purpose. Furthermore, it is generally impossible for these programs to model the true conditions of a real accident because of the uncertain behavior of the workers and emergency crews responding to the event.

Second, these examples represent a fundamental change in DOE'S approach to protection of the public near defense nuclear facilities.  [emphasis added]

[17] DNFSB WSR 8/25/06, with some progress noted in WSR of 11/2406. 

[18] DNFSB WSR 11/17/06.

[19] “Transportainers,” DNFSB WSR 11/17/06; “safeguarded” trailers, DNFSB WSRs 6/2/06 and 9/22/06; Roger Snodgrass, “Nuclear materials stashed in Los Alamos,” Los Alamos Monitor, Dec 20, 2006, http://www.lamonitor.com/articles/2006/12/19/headline_news/news02.txt.

[20] DNFSB WSRs 2/10/06, 6/2/06, 7/21/06, 8/25/06, and 10/20/06.

[21] DNFSB WSRs 9/15/06 and 11/24/06; DNFSB Board Letter of 2/1/07.

[22] Department of Energy, Congressional Budget Request (CBR) for FY2008, Volume 1, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), p. 246 (electronic pagination).

[23] DNFSB WSR 11/24/06; DNFSB BRD LTR, 2/1/07; John Arnold, “Lab May Not Be Prepared For Fire,” Dec 18, 2006, Albuquerque Journal North, http://www.abqjournal.com/santafe/522058north_news12-18-06.htm.

[24] DNFSB WSRs of 11/15/06 and 11/3/06.

[25] DNFSB WSRs of 8/11/06, 10/13/06, 12/1/06, and 12/29/06; DNFSB Board Letter of 2/1/07.

[26] For more on the elusiveness of high reliability and related issues at LANL, see Los Alamos Study Group, “Disarmament Group Calls for Greater Openness, Accountability at New Mexico Nuclear Labs, press release of 7/22/04 in response to LANL shutdown.  Available from Study Group.

[27] DNFSB BRD LTR, 9/22/06 and DNFSB WSR, 12/22/06.

[28] DNFSB BRD LTR, 1/18/07.

[29] DNFSB WSRs 6/30/06, 8/25/06, and 9/8/06.

[30] DNFSB WSR, 8/25/06.

[31] This is a major focus of the DNFSB BRD LTR, 2/1/07.

[32] Greg Mello, “Declining federal oversight at Los Alamos, increasing production incentives: a dangerous divergence,” presentation to DNFSB, 3/22/06, http://www.lasg.org/DNFSBMar06.htm.  See also

[33] DNFSB WSR, 12/22/06.

[34] Los Alamos Geologic Society presentation of Dr. Jamie Gardner, LANL, 9/13/05.

[35] Gardner, previous note.

[36] DNFSB WSR, 8/25/06.  Since the specific activity of Pu-238 is about 275 times that of Pu-239, this is radiologically equivalent to processing more than a ton of Pu-239.  The fate of LANL’s Pu-238 operations, which involve roughly one-fourth the space in PF-4 and currently create the greatest hazard, is not certain.  DOE has proposed moving them to Idaho National Laboratory (INL), which would approximately double the space available for pit production in PF-4.  We are uncertain of this proposal’s status.

[37] DOE FY2008 Congressional Budget Request, Volume 1, p. 197 paper pagination.

[38] DNFSB WSR, 11/10/06.

[39] Jon Hunner, Inventing Los Alamos: Growth of an Atomic Community, Univ. of Oklahoma Press 2004, p. 169.

[40] Testimony of Richard Urie, former LANL occupational safety expert, testifying at the Socorro, NM “Complex 2030” hearing on 12/4/06. 

[41] Los Alamos County has more millionaires per capita than any other U.S. county.  Mark Oswald, “1 in 5 Is Rich in Los Alamos,” Albuquerque Journal North, 4/9/06 http://www.abqjournal.com/north/450178north_news04-09-06.htm.

[42] For more on differing notions of security in the LANL region and much else of interest see Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico, Princeton University Press, 2006.

[43] Mayor Joseph Maestas, “Investing in Northern New Mexico’s Future: A Plan for Economic Equity, Self-Sufficiency, & Sustainability,” November 2006.

[44] The causes of LANL’s economic failure are discussed by the author in the working paper, “Does Los Alamos National Lab Help or Hurt the New Mexico Economy?,” at http://www.lasg.org/LANLecon_impact.pdf.  For a discussion of LANL’s role in the local drug problem see endnote 20 there, quoting Angela Garcia’s article “Land of Disenchantment,” High Country News, 4/306. 

[45]  For a partial record of this see “Traces in the Dust,” a public record of Study Group activities documented in the print media from Jan. 1992 to Nov. 2006, “Sustained Disapproval,” regarding disposal in TA-54, Material Disposal Area G, and “Plutonium pit production and related issues,” all at www.lasg.org.

[46] Of these four delivery modes, DoD is considering retiring one: nuclear cruise missiles.  If DoD itself is doubtful about maintaining cruise missile warheads, I think we should not worry about them in this context but rather encourage DoD to retire them. 

[47] There is also likely redundancy in targeting, to pick just one pertinent additional layer. 

[48] In addition there exist other forms of deterrence, including non-military deterrence and including passive forms of deterrence which involve no active role by the U.S. at all.  These other forms of deterrence, of which a large number could be listed, would remain in the event of a “loss” of nuclear deterrence due to technical malfunction.   For a complex of reasons like these, the vast majority of states do not desire nuclear weapons.

[49] Unfortunately, the capability to produce and field gun-assembled weapons exists independently of pit manufacturing capability.  The geometry of these designs and their mass, as well as the ruggedness easily achieved in their design is particularly suited for earth-penetrating bombs.  Existing tested designs are available, and their neutronic modeling for new casings and environments is relatively accurate and predictable.


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