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"Forget the Rest" blog

Short precis on pit production operating and capital project issues

June 10, 2008

1. Placing pit production on warm standby is the best politically practical policy.

Placing pit production on warm standby, with limited production of pits (less than 10 pits/year) for internal testing purposes but no active production of “war-reserve” pits for the stockpile, is the best pit production policy for the foreseeable future within the present scope of political possibilities. 

Such a policy conserves the technological basis of new pit production and may be the best policy for that purpose. 

There is a surfeit of weapons, and also of pits, not a dearth.  An examination of expected future quantities of extra pits and reserve warheads of each type, after currently-planned dismantlements, suggests that providing for additional backup pits is superfluous and wasteful.  These redundancies are latently present now, even prior to dismantlement; they appear when warheads and bombs are declared inactive.

Pit production is also provocative to other countries and so carries significant national security costs, without corresponding benefit however construed. 

The U.S. is “producing” extra pits of relevant types all the time via the dismantlement process, without additional cost, delay, risk, or environmental impact beyond the dismantlement process itself. 

A warm standby policy would allow the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and its contractors to focus on safety and much-needed repairs rather than meeting artificial pit production goals, which are meaningless from the nuclear deterrence perspective both now and for future decades. 

Nuclear deterrence itself is questionable in many ways and is being newly questioned from many quarters.  The legal and practical imperatives for nuclear disarmament cannot be ignored, not least because they bear directly on prospects for containing proliferation.  Regardless of the outcome of this debate, warm standby is the best policy for pit production – with or without stockpile reductions beyond those already planned.

2. Halting investments in additional pit-production-related construction is the best policy.

Redirecting the very large and open-ended capital investments budgeted for new manufacturing-related construction at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) would be best for the future of LANL, Los Alamos County, the U.S., and the world. 

These capital investments are unnecessary from any perspective save that of increasing pit manufacturing capacity. 

The flagship project in what would be an expanded LANL plutonium complex is the Nuclear Facility (NF) portion of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility.  Pit production is the primary if not the sole true justification for this project. 

The cost of the CMRR NF project is currently estimated at great than $2 billion; total new plutonium-related construction and associated demolition at LANL is estimated to exceed $3 billion.  These costs can be expected to rise further.  No clear estimate of building cost is now expected prior to February 2010. 

Given weak justification, rising costs, unresolved design issues (e.g. seismic design, overall scale of project), and the perilous financial and energy supply conditions of the country, these projects may never be completed.  Failure to achieve closure on seismic structural building design after 5 years and hundreds of millions of dollars is particularly worrisome, as is the evident lack of clarity about the scale and purposes of the construction. 

In addition to the CMRR NF, the Nuclear Materials Safeguards and Security Upgrades Project (NMSSUP, more than $240 million), the Pit Radiography Project (TRP, $47 million), and portions of the TA-55 Reinvestment Project (TRP, more than $175 million), are also driven by an unjustified aspiration to expand pit production capacity.  Planned expansion of pit production plays a cryptic role in other operating and capital project budgets at LANL as well.

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