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"Forget the Rest" blog

Plutonium Pit Production — LANL's Pivotal New Mission

The first plutonium (Pu) atomic bomb core (“pit”) was made at Los Alamos in 1945 and detonated near Alamogordo on July 16. The second core was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan a few days later, destroying the city and 74,000 of its inhabitants.

Los Alamos continued to make all the pits for the U.S. nuclear stockpile, first at Building D (where the Quality Inn is today) and then at DP Site (TA-21) until 1949, when the Hanford site in WA began pit production, supplemented by Rocky Flats in 1952.

“Rocky” took over plutonium machining completely in 1965. LANL and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) continued to make pits for nuclear testing (and possibly for the stockpile at times) until 1992.

In 1988 the Department of Energy (DOE) realized that the mounting environmental, safety, and moral protest problems at “Rocky” would doom the plant and issued the first of many plans to replace it in December of that year. Rocky Flats stopped production in 1989 after an FBI/EPA raid and extensive public protest. Partial cleanup there has cost taxpayers about $12 billion.

DOE has tried to restart production again and again

DOE’s December 1988 plan for nuclear weapons production was followed by a stealth 1989 plan, a February 1991 plan, a July 1993 plan, and a May 1995 plan that was finalized in late 1996. All have been defeated so far by citizen intervention, Congressional skepticism, and the facts on the ground.
In the 1995/1996 plan, DOE announced that LANL would re-establish the capacity to make up to 50 pits/year with single-shift operations, a capacity which DOE also said at the time LANL already had. But in September 1997, internal revelations about serious LANL seismic problems (obtained and publicized by LASG) caused DOE to downscale and delay production, aiming instead for 20 pits/yr by 2007.

LANL pit production is housed in Building PF-4 at TA-55, built in 1978. Pit production per se occupies about 30% of the available PF-4 space, with an additional 25% devoted to Pu metal preparation.

After the 1997 decision to downscale and delay, six years passed before Los Alamos manufactured its first “certifiable” pit in 2003 — meaning that the pit could have been used in the stockpile if needed. Since then, LANL has been tuning up its production processes and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA, that part of DOE which manages the nuclear weapons program) now expects to begin producing an initial 10 pits/yr by FY08, down from its earlier 20 pits/yr target and delayed one year.

As long as LANL is the only pit production facility, NNSA is keeping LLNL as a pit production backup and has taken steps to increase its Pu inventory.

The rise and fall of the “Modern Pit Facility”

Meanwhile in September 2002 NNSA issued a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) for a big new pit production facility called the Modern Pit Facility (MPF), with a proposed capacity of 125-450 pits/yr. This facility was estimated to cost $2-4 billion and would be built at one of five sites, one of which was LANL. It was to begin production in 2019 (later, 2021).

The MPF siting decision was expected in April 2004 but congressional appropriators led by the House concluded in late 2003 that it was premature to pursue further decisions on MPF given that NNSA had no firm plan for the future of the stockpile at that time. Congress trimmed the project’s FY04 budget accordingly.

In FY05 Congress again tied NNSA’s hands on MPF, directing the agency to focus on producing pits at LANL. The MPF budget was slashed by almost 80%. In FY06 Congress took away all MPF funds, instead requesting NNSA to look hard into a consolidated production center that would allegedly save money, provide greater security, and be safer to operate. In the meantime, LANL would make what pits might be needed.

NNSA asked for no MPF funds for FY07 and none are contemplated in Congress. It should be noted that the entire New Mexico congressional delegation supported the MPF.

A shiny new bomb factory vs. a“stealth” factory vs. no factory

In March 2004, DOE promised in House testimony to study consolidating the nuclear weapons complex. The study began in January 2005 and was completed in July of that year by the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board (SEAB), since disbanded. The SEAB concluded it was in the nation’s interest to build a Consolidated Nuclear Production Center (CNPC) and close down most nuclear materials operations at LANL, Y-12, and other sites by roughly 2030, with CNPC construction costs to be more than offset in the long run by reduced overhead.

Meanwhile many parties, including Senator Domenici, were engaged in trying to expand LANL’s pit production capacity and thereby commit the U.S. to large-scale pit production at LANL. The centerpiece of this plan is the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility, to be located at TA-55 adjacent and connected to PF-4. The CMRR replaces an old facility at TA-3 which was to be used for pit production in DOE’s 1996 plan but which was found to be situated over an active earthquake fault. The CMRR is similar to a facility proposed in 1989 that was defeated by New Mexico activists in 1990.

The CMRR, a $900+ million project, has been opposed by House appropriators but promoted by Senator Domenici – so far successfully. Construction on the first phase could begin at any time, despite that fact that the House Appropriations Committee proposes to remove $100 million (out of $112 million) in next year’s project funding, calling the project “irrational.” They argue that there is no current need to make pits in any quantity and they also argue that if the CMRR is built, it might operate for only a few years before being superseded by the CNPC.

By the end of FY06, DOE/NNSA will have spent about $2.5 billion on pit production at LANL alone. With the CMRR and related expenses needed to rebuild PF-4 and other facilities, sunk pit production costs at LANL would be least $5 billion by 2012, more than the estimated cost of the MPF! A renewed PF-4 plus CMRR plus the other facilities needed would be in fact a kind of crazy-quilt MPF, with key facilities and systems not designed for production and already quite old when production would begin.

Why does NNSA want to make more pits?

The U.S. has about 23,000 pits, of which about 10,000 are in weapons and roughly 13,000 are in storage at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo , TX .

Nearly all the pits in the stockpile were made between 1978 and 1989. No one knows how long pits will ultimately last, but weapons experts and congressional studies have said that pits will last at least 60 years. No signs of degradation or any upper limit on working age have been found. All deployed pits will thus last through 2038 at a minimum. Through accelerated aging experiments, NNSA is gathering an additional 14-16 years of pit “longevity” data each year, raising serious questions about the rush to spend billions of dollars on a new pit production factory.

At LANL, pit production is being established to build W88 pits, an existing type used in warheads for Trident submarine missiles. NNSA now plans to curtail W88 production in favor of a new type of pit, called the “Reliable Replacement Warhead” (RRW), which is to be the prototype of a family of new (and untested) warheads meant to replace all existing U.S. warheads.

Despite occasional denials, NNSA has stated that the evolving nuclear arsenal, for which evolution RRW is to be the primary means, will provide new military capabilities as well as foster a “responsive” production infrastructure.

NNSA hopes to begin trial production of RRW pits at LANL in the 2009-2012 period, proceeding in parallel at first with W88 manufacture and then replacing W88 production entirely by 2015.

We should be careful, because no one outside NNSA and LANL can be sure exactly what pits LANL is making now or is preparing to make in the future, since these programs are classified. Many details can be withheld even from Congress in a variety of ways. Most workers in these programs have no access to this information.

The first RRW pits are meant to replace pits in W76 Trident warheads, which are currently near the beginning of an extensive and militarily significant $2.5 billion upgrade.

Missile upgrades are also underway, with dramatic improvements in accuracy now tested and approaching possible deployment. These accuracy improvements are said to be for “conventional” warheads but it is virtually certain they will also be applied to nuclear warheads sooner or later as well, enabling new “warfighting” uses for nuclear warheads with “mininuke” yields. It is very unlikely that RRW warheads would be incompatible with these striking developments.

In all these plans, LANL is the pivotal site

Of all the nuclear weapons facilities, Los Alamos is the most pivotal because it is only at Los Alamos that pits can be made. And this will remain true for at least the next 15 years. With no new pits, new weapon designs can only be made from recycled pits, limiting design options and constraining the future stockpile as well as the weapons complex itself.

Unfortunately, innovative weapons based on RRW designs or other clandestine designs may be requested in small quantities only, as LANL managers, military staff, and DoD officials have frequently discussed over the last 14 years. It has happened already. Only 50 B61-11 earth-penetrating bombs were produced in 1997 – and these were ordered in secret, without congressional debate. Thus even a small pit production capability could produce adequate quantities of new “warfighting” weapons, with most observers none the wiser.

Former U.S. Strategic Commander in Chief General Lee Butler, who eventually came to believe that nuclear deterrence was a specious doctrine, has said: “The nuclear beast must be chained, its soul expunged, its lair laid waste.”

Ending pit production at Rocky Flats seriously injured the nuclear beast. It is a momentous fact that plans to produce new nuclear weapons, and all they portend for humanity’s prospects, will succeed or fail depending in substantial part upon the actions of New Mexico citizens. We are at a moment of truth in which decades of citizen resistance to weapons of mass destruction have come to renewed focus, here and now.

Weapons production pollutes the environment

Needless to say, pit production creates a great deal of nuclear waste, currently disposed at LANL and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad . LANL’s nuclear waste dump, “Area G,” is already the largest nuclear dump in New Mexico and three surrounding states and is slated to expand indefinitely as more waste is generated from LANL’s nuclear missions. This is a dump located on a narrow mesa adjacent to springs which is not lined, not licensed, not externally regulated, and not subject to cleanup. Management of the dump was recently taken from environmental scientists and given to LANL’s pit production chief.

As long as such dumping continues, LANL’s billion-dollar “cleanup” program is really running in reverse, notwithstanding a great deal of distracting rhetoric and more than a billion dollars spent so far. The dumping won’t end until nuclear weapons design and production, which produce nearly all the waste at Los Alamos , likewise come to an end. Once nuclear waste is made it must be disposed somewhere. Better not to make it.

The greater environmental impact of the New Mexico nuclear labs occurs in other ways, however. Historically, the nuclear labs led the way in polluting the entire biosphere with radioactive fallout, reliably estimated to have caused several hundred thousand early deaths so far. These labs have played key roles in promoting nuclear technologies worldwide, the global effects of which, from mining to spent fuel disposal to weapons proliferation and everything in between, have been vast.

Today LANL and SNL are key players in the proposed worldwide resurgence of nuclear power. They have been working for many years to promote nuclear technologies through the semi-secret Global Nuclear Vision Project and by many other means. They have especially promoted fantastically expensive, exotic, and unproven nuclear technologies using plutonium and spent nuclear fuel, approaches which create large amounts of nuclear and hazardous waste, but which also happen to create more work for themselves (viz. the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership).

To summarize a longer argument, the identities and cultures of the nuclear weapons labs have been built around technologies of mass environmental destruction, developed in a Faustian quest for power over nature that has no place for humble human stewardship of the earth. Pollution – here, there, or everywhere – is not an accidental byproduct of these ambitions but rather an inherent aspect of them.

LANL TA-55 main gate with guards. Security here is all-pervasive.

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