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No Need for a Large-Scale Pit Facility: Existing Los Alamos Facilities Are Adequate

Remarks and Press Advisory, Thursday, October 24, 2002
Contact: Greg Mello, 609-258-5276 or 609-497-2708

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) of Department of Energy (DOE) has proposed building and operating a large-scale facility for the manufacture of plutonium “pits,” the cores of the primary stage of nuclear weapons.  Tonight, DOE will conduct a public hearing in Los Alamos regarding the scope of the environmental impact analysis it must do in order to select a site for this facility, which it calls the “Modern Pit Facility” (MPF).

1. Background

The first pit was made at Los Alamos for the Trinity test in 1945.  From that date until 1952, when the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver , Colorado was opened, all U.S. pits were made at Los Alamos .  After that date, Los Alamos and (beginning in 1952) what is now Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, also made pits for at least four decades. [1] 

Rocky Flats was shut down in 1989 after a joint EPA/FBI raid, prompted by reports of what turned out to be massive violations of environmental and other laws.  This raid was preceded by one of the largest sustained campaigns of public protest in the history of the United States, involving tens of thousands of people over roughly a two-decade period, which involved many issues, including environmental, ethical, and national security concerns. 

In 1992, after three years of attempting to fix the physical, environmental, and institutional problems at the site, DOE shut down “Rocky.”  Since then, cleanup has been underway at that site.  Source removal, building decontamination and demolition, and cleanup is expected to cost very roughly $10 billion, not including long-term monitoring and other post-closure care. [2]  Cleanup will not, even if all goes well, address much of the widespread soil contamination at the site.  While future facilities are unlikely to be as contaminating and dangerous as the Rocky Flats Plant, this cannot be guaranteed.  New or newly appreciated hazards (e.g. terrorism and sabotage) have risen as risk factors even as others have purportedly declined. 

Prior attempts to construct a new plutonium pit factory to replace the Rocky Flats Plant have been highly controversial, both in New Mexico and nationally, for more than a decade. [3]  In New Mexico, they have been the subject of litigation, protest, analysis, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and associated litigation, and lobbying by members of our own organization and by others.  Thus the present hearing takes place against a backdrop of political struggle, which it is sure to intensify.  Its subject, namely the role of weapons of mass destruction in our national life, ranks as one of the most politicized issues in the last 6 decades. 

This struggle has been, not least, a struggle for accurate information, without which hearings such as this have little meaning.  While some information has kindly been provided, the key pieces of the puzzle, and therefore the whole pattern, have not been.  They are not available now.  Therefore this momentous issue is being brought before the public in what could only be described as a misleading fashion. 

As will be discussed below, one crucial category of information that has not been fully available is relates to the past, current, and future potential for pit manufacturing at Los Alamos .  None of the needed information would in any way enable terrorists, or aid the enemies of the United States , and we urge the DOE to reopen a dialogue with the public in these matters.

The requirement to hold the present hearing stems from the settlement of a lawsuit organized by the Los Alamos Study Group (Study Group) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in 1997, in which a total of some 39 plaintiffs eventually took part.  An important part of that lawsuit concerned the environmental impacts of pit manufacturing then proposed for Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). 

It was specifically alleged by the plaintiffs that DOE had, in addition to its declared pit manufacturing plan, a secret contingency plan to construct a large-scale pit manufacturing facility, which would have much greater environmental and policy impact, and which would complement DOE’s smaller, then-current plan in the fullness of time. 

As tonight’s hearing confirms, DOE did have such a plan.

These allegations can be found in an affidavit dated April 6, 1998 , at http://www.lasg.org/ssmfrm_a.html (see especially paragraphs 30-38).  Other pertinent affidavits are also available at this web site and at the offices of the Los Alamos Study Group and the NRDC (call Tom Cochran at 202-289-6868).  Together, these affidavits analyze deficiencies in DOE’s environmental impact analysis for pit production.  They will be submitted to the record of this hearing, since the questions raised then were never satisfactorily answered. 

In response to these allegations, DOE agreed in settlement to conduct a “supplemental analysis” if it were to change its pit production plan.  Tonight’s hearing, and the analysis that will follow, is the legally required result.

In the past 10 years DOE and now NNSA have had several different plans for producing plutonium pits (see note 3).  Our friend Jay Rose, who is leading the present analysis, will remember at least some of them.  Perhaps Mr. Rose and all of us can sit and have tea together when this plan, like the others, is just a memory.

Almost half of DOE’s large projects are never built, and of those that are, many have serious problems and some never achieve their original purpose.  Between 1980 and 1996, DOE cancelled some 31 out of 80 major projects, on which more than $10 billion had already been spent.  As of the end of this period, only 15 projects out of 80 had yet been completed (see GAO, RCED-97435R). 

We believe the Modern Pit Facility is likely to be one of those projects, because, like so many DOE projects, there is no real “mission need.”  It is very important to understand this mission need, which usually receives only cursory treatment in proceedings such as these, and the analysis of alternatives in relation to it.  This last, as the pertinent federal regulations state, is the heart of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. 

Of particular interest, quoting from the Federal Register Notice of Intent for this process (on 9/23/02 , at p. 59579), is the “reasonableness of upgrading the existing facilities at LANL to increase pit production capacity.” 

We will submit, in addition to these remarks and the unanswered questions now pending for several years, other comment by mail.

2. Higher Laws

It’s important to recall that the purpose of this facility is to manufacture a particularly violent and cruel type of weapon of mass destruction (WMD).  It’s also important to know that the United States has agreed to eventually end its possession of these weapons in binding treaty and domestic law.  The present proposal, being advanced by the executive branch with general and tentative but not specific line-item approval by Congress, is in strong tension with generally accepted social norms as well as with both international law and treaties, which the United has ratified.

This recollection is particularly salient because our country is poised to enter a war of aggression, the first such in its history, [4] under color of eliminating another nation’s ability to produce WMD.  Production of WMD is the purpose of the MPF.

Nuclear weapon lethality exceeds that of the worst chemical weapons, on a warhead by warhead or pound for pound basis, by approximately two orders of magnitude. [5]  It also exceeds the effects of all known biological weapons as well, save smallpox.  The destructive effects of nuclear weapons – blast, heat, and radiation -- are virtually total near the detonation point, and create a large and not fully predictable area of total killing, within a much large zone of increased likelihood of sickness and early death.  These lethal effects cannot by their nature discriminate between military and civilian populations, and one of them, residual radiation, persists for fairly long periods of time. 

Nuclear weapons are explicitly proscribed by numerous international laws and resolutions and, implicitly, by the laws of war taught to U.S. military officers. [6]  Analysis by the Study Group and others [7] shows that not even the smallest proposed "mini-nuke" can meet the required legal tests, and over large areas of the world, nuclear weapon use is per se illegal by prior agreement. [8]

In fact, such use anywhere would likely be a war crime of high degree, and could be prosecuted as such. Under established principles of international humanitarian law, willful ignorance or blind obedience in such matters does not by themselves constitute a plausible defense against the assignment of responsibility for crimes carried out with such weapons.

Not only is the use of nuclear weapons barred by law in all important cases, but their very possession into the indeterminate future is not fully supported by law.  In 1968, the United States signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In 1970 the treaty was ratified, making it part of what our Constitution calls the "supreme law of the land," a far weightier category than the executive branch initiative we are discussing tonight.  Our nuclear disarmament commitment is spelled out in Article VI, which reads in full:

Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.[9]

There are two important norms here: “do not improve nuclear weapons,” and “do not possess them” – whether it is continuous non-possession (by most countries), or eventual non-possession, by the five countries recognized as nuclear weapon states in the treaty.  It cannot be emphasized too much that these norms were sponsored, advanced, and ratified by the full government of the United States, and continue to be advanced and supported in each and every international gathering reviewing the operation of this treaty.  It is a cornerstone of global and U.S. national security.

It could be argued that to fulfill this commitment we have only to try, and not necessarily to succeed, to end the arms race (now unilateral) and to disarm. The U.S. used that argument before the International Court of Justice in 1996; it was unanimously rejected. The Court instead ruled that:

There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control. [10]

In May of 2000, 155 NPT signatories (including the U.S. and the other nuclear weapons states) formally reaffirmed the Article VI commitment:

[To implement Article VI of the NPT, we commit to:]...An unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States and parties are committed under Article VI.[11]

We believe that the facility in question tonight is not needed for many years hence, if ever, and therefore is an affront to these requirements.  It is, in essence, be illegal.

By contrast, the alternative we propose would be compatible with all these commitments as well as with the temporary maintenance of today’s very large nuclear arsenal.  It is also compatible with the indefinite maintenance of the arsenal proposed by President Bush, should our country fail to fulfill these treaty requirements.

This better alternative would also provide the opportunity to negotiate measures to prevent rapid buildup of the Russian and Chinese arsenals, improving U.S. security in this way as well.

And most germane to the present hearing, it would minimize environmental impacts, and both the risks and consequences of accident, sabotage, and terrorist attack.

3. Small is … Less Ugly

The U.S. has today roughly 10,600 nuclear weapons, of some 9 types and 15 variants. [12]  In addition, there are some 13,000 to 15,000 plutonium pits in storage at the Pantex Nuclear Weapons Plant near Amarillo , Texas , of which very roughly 5,000 have been reserved for possible future use in the U.S. stockpile.  (It is possible that others there could also be used, but we do not know this of a certainty.)  Although the exact numbers are classified, we can therefore state without fear of being greatly wrong that there are some 23,600 to 25,600 plutonium pits in the U.S. today, which have varying ages, construction methods, designs, and storage pedigrees.  Approximately 15,000 of these and possibly many more are either in use today or viewed as useable by DOE.

According to cognizant LANL and Livermore officials, plutonium pits last for a minimum of 45-60 years, and possibly much longer. [13]  The oldest pits in the stockpile were made at some time in the late 1960s, and the newest in 1989. [14]  Therefore the oldest pits in the stockpile could begin to fail circa 2015 at the very earliest, using the most conservative of the publicly available figures.  The mission of the MPF is, nominally, to produce pits to replace those which fail, either by producing pits of existing design or pits of new design – or, as congressional budget requests and other documents say, both.  (This latter mission is deeply problematic, but it is not the main subject tonight.) 

While pits are not fully fungible between different weapons, there is a degree of interchangeability in some cases, and some of these cases already have been the subject of nuclear tests. [15]  That is, some pit reuse options are “mature designs” which could be readily certified, according to the DOE.  For example, one such option has been prepared for the W76 Trident I warheads, of which the U.S. has approximately 3,200, making it the most numerous type of warhead in the arsenal. [16]  These W76 warheads will reach 45 years of age some time after 2023.

President Bush and President Putin of Russia have negotiated and signed an instrument – hardly a treaty – called the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT).  (It is “sort” of a treaty; see http://www.lasg.org/ChrisPaineTestimony.htm.) 

In this agreement, the U.S. agrees to reduce its deployed strategic weapons to 2,200 weapons by December 31, 2012 .   Given that about 2,010 weapons in the current arsenal are tactical weapons, of which only approximately 1,160 are active, this means that some 6,446 warheads of varying ages will be removed from deployed status by the end of 2012 under SORT, not counting any reductions in tactical weapons that may also take place.

We propose that, after consultation with his advisors, Secretary Abraham convey to President Bush the wisdom – strategic as well as political -- of renaming the pits in those 6,446 reserved weapons, plus an additional 850 already-retired tactical weapons, or 7,296 pits in all, a “hedge” against aging in the remaining arsenal, which will then consist of 2,200 deployed strategic weapons and no more than 1,160 tactical weapons.  In addition, the circa 5,000 war reserve pits in Amarillo would still be available, plus, as a final hedge, the 8,000 to 10,000 other pits in Pantex, some of which may (we do not know) be of robust and durable, if older, design.

This is a lot of pits -- enough, as we used to say, to blow up the world many times over.

It is so many pits, in fact, and of so many kinds and ages, that any outside observer might question just why it is that the most hawkish advisors to the DOE – and here I include Mr. John Foster and Mr. Harold Agnew, among others -- have pushed so hard for the MPF. 

I think we all know.

But what about Los Alamos ?  Los Alamos has had a program to make pits since 1944, and its pits have worked indistinguishably from those made at Rocky Flats and at Livermore , at least throughout the late 1970s and mid-1980s if not also at all other times, accordingly to analyses conducted at congressional request by Dr. Ray Kidder. [17] 

So what is the capacity of the LANL facilities today?  It has been variously described.

According to documents submitted to the court in the aforementioned case, LANL had the capacity to make 12 pits per year in 1992. [18]

As of February 29, 1996 , DOE said “current pit production capacity is limited to that at the LANL TA-55 development facility--10 to 20 pits per year.” 

In the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement SSM PEIS (p. 3-4, note "a"), DOE states that a pit-making capacity of "up to 50 per year" is "inherent with the facilities and equipment required to manufacture one component for any stockpile system." 

We are now supposed to believe that LANL will make its first certified pit in 2007, at a cumulative cost last estimated at $1.741 billion, and that the LANL facility will then have a capacity of approximately 10 pits per year at that time. [19] 

This is most assuredly understated.  Upon information and belief, it does not include the plutonium isotope pits prepared for testing at the DARHT, Phermex, LANSCE, and planned follow-on facilities including the Advanced Hydrotest Facility, as part of programs such as “Appaloosa,” nor, upon information and belief, does it include all the pits prepared for underground subcritical tests in Nevada . 

The planned scale of these programs is substantial -- so substantial that the LANL Comprehensive Site Plan 2000 says that they create a programmatic justification for floor space equal to three-fourths of PF-4, TA-55. [20]

The actual floor space dedicated to pit production is, upon information and belief, modest relative to the total active floor space at PF-4.[21]  In fact, pit production floor space could be doubled within PF-4, if desired, albeit at sacrifice to other programs. 

We believe that LANL’s PF-4 could actually build more than 50 pits per year (with a 3-shift capacity of 80 pits/yr), an alternative already analyzed in the SSM PEIS.  Upon information and belief, LANL could double this rate if a) national security depended upon it (which it never will, but that is the assumption in the MPF program) and b) LANL had the manufacturing lines and equipment prepositioned. 

What is essential is for LANL to get out of the nuclear weapons design business and into the stockpile maintenance business. 

Instead, what the superhawks are pushing on LANL – perhaps without a full understanding in all parts of the LANL community – is a future in which new pit designs are brought forward for certification and manufacture.  These designs would need to be tested in full-up explosive tests in Nevada , as LANL’s Don McCoy and Livermore ’s Mike Anastasio told the San Francisco Chronicle in an article published this week.[22]  A few members of the old guard are pushing nuclear testing, and this MPF is an integral part of that plan.

Upon information and belief, the proposed MPF facility is to be sized to produce approximately 125 new pits per year.  This is far too large, but it might be, with a careful review and vetting of competing missions, attainable or almost attainable within PF-4. 

The capacity for material processing throughput need not be limiting at this scale; in the 1980s this facility processed up to approximately 3 times this much metal in some years. [23]

The overall rate-determining steps in pit manufacture are almost certainly manufacturing the fissile material parts (plutonium in most cases and highly enriched uranium in the case of the B83 bomb), and assembling the whole.  Other process rates are readily improved if "lacking," either at LANL or other DOE sites.  Parts of the CMR building may be available for non-nuclear use; the main shops could be used; the Sigma Complex is already designated to be so used; the Kansas City Plant; and Oak Ridge -- are all available to make non-nuclear parts.

The CMR Replacement Building need not figure prominently in this plan, and no Category I nuclear material space need be provided within it.  In fact, were this building designed, built, and certified as a light nuclear lab, unsuited for kilogram quantities of nuclear material, with future changes both locally and internationally transparent, the worst features of the current push to create tomorrow’s environmental problems would be avoided. 

The decision to build this building, by the way, is a connected action under NEPA. 

In sum, Los Alamos can do the key part of the pit production mission, if desired, within it’s existing building PF-4.  The true scale of the effort required is by no means clear from the information provided, even using DOE’s stockpile assumptions -- which we believe to be out of step with U.S. security interests, as well as U.S. domestic and treaty law, which express deep and lasting norms against weapons of mass destruction in our society. 

A strong interpretation of the SORT treaty, in which pits released from the deployed stockpile are simply re-named “surplus,” would even more clearly remove any need for new construction, and save bundles of money in other parts of the stockpile management program as well.[24]  To assert that PF-4 and other existing buildings cannot meet this mission need without analysis, as in the notice of intent, does not rise to the legally required standard.


[1] Uranium pits, such as for the 620 high-yield B83 bombs in the arsenal today, may have been made at the Y-12 Plant in Tennessee .  We do not know.

[2] The Kaiser-Hill contract amount for 1997 until expected closure in 2006 is $7 billion, including everything (Leroy Moore, Rocky Mountain Peace Center , personal communication).  Adding $3 billion, give or take a billion, for spending for the years 1992 – 1996 gives the ballpark figure cited above. 

[3] To oversimplify, in January of 1991, DOE released its recommendations for a reconfigured weapon complex, called “Complex-21.”  After a firestorm of protest, this plan was withdrawn in favor of a smaller version, which also was withdrawn.  Individual projects and programs were then advanced over the next few years, some of which were protested and/or litigated.  Some (not all) of these projects were drawn together for environmental analysis in the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (SSM PEIS) of 1996, which was also litigated.  The pit production portion of the SSM program has not been successfully started at Los Alamos.

[4] Congressional Research Service, “ Use of Preemptive Military Force,” Richard F. Grimmett, RS21311, September 18, 2002, available at http://www.fas.org/man/crs/RS21311.pdf.

[5] See for example “Ballistic Missiles and Weapons of Mass Destruction: What is the Threat?  What Should Be Done?,” Steve Fetter, International Security, Vol. 16, No. 1, Summer 1991.

[6] See for example Nuclear Weapons and International Law in the Post Cold War World, Charles J. Moxley, Jr. , Austin & Winfield, Publishers, 2000.

[7] Rob Nelson, “Low Yield Earth-Penetrating Nuclear Weapons,” Science and Global Security, provides part of the picture 10:1-20, 2002.

[8] Nuclear weapon free zones cover most of the southern hemisphere.

[9]The text of the treaty is available at http://www.unog.ch/disarm/distreat/npt.pdf.

[10] Available at http://www.lasg.org/worldfrm_a.html

[11] Available at http://www.acronym.org.uk/npt/npt18.htm#poa.  For initial press reaction see "5 Atom Powers Agree to Scrap Arsenals", International Herald Tribune, May 22, 2000 . "Pressure grows on nuclear powers to disarm", Financial Times, May 23, 2000 . "5 Nuclear Powers Agree on Stronger Pledge to Scrap Arsenals", New York Times, May 22, 2000 .

[12] These and other stockpile details are as estimated by the Natural Resources Defense Council.  They are available in pertinent detail at http://www.nrdc.org/media/pressreleases/020213a.asp

[13] This is a large subject; the “45-60” year minimum is quoted from two official laboratory sources by the Congressional Research Service, “Nuclear Warhead ‘Pit’ Production Issues,” by Jonathan Medalia, RS20956, July 26, 2000 .  Raymond Jeanloz co-directed a JASON study on aging and surveillance for the DOE (“Signatures of Aging,” MITRE Corporation, January 1998).  Jeanloz subsequently wrote:

Thus, crucial primary-stage components that were initially subject to concern have been shown through the SSP [stockpile stewardship program] to be robust as they age. Indeed, there is now consensus among specialists that the Pu pits in the US stockpile are stable over periods of at least 50­60 years, with the most recent studies suggesting a far longer period. More important than the indications of benign aging is the demonstration that the materials are now becoming understood in sufficient detail, and surveillance methods are becoming sensitive enough, to ensure that any signs of degradation will be observed in time to apply the necessary repairs or refurbishment.

(Physics Today, December 2000, 53:12, on line at http://www.physicstoday.org/pt/vol-53/iss-12/p44.html.)

[14] Stockpile history is from Chuck Hansen, “Swords of Armageddon,” Chukelea Publications, current update.

[15] See, for example, James Tyler, “Innovative Warhead Design ‘Pit Reuse’,” presentation to the National Security Panel of the Galvin Panel, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), [date – 1993?].  See also Greg Mello , “That Old Designing Fever,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jan/Feb 2000, pp. 51-57.  The relevant programs were called PRESS (“Pit Reuse for Environment, Safety, and Security”) at LLNL and MAST (“Multiple Application Surety Technologies”) at LANL

[16] Mello, op. cit.

[17] Ray Kidder, "Maintaining the U.S. Stockpile of Nuclear Weapons During a Low-Threshold or Comprehensive Test Ban," October 1987, UCRL-53820, LLNL. "During the past decade [1977-1986], new boosted primaries have been designed and developed by the weapons laboratories...performed satisfactorily the very first time they were tested, the observed yield in no case falling short of that expected by more than...The one new primary that failed was of a more complex, less predictable design than the others.   This primary was subsequently redesigned, tested, and failed again. None of the primaries in the existing stockpile employ... [New paragraph] This experience demonstrates that the ability of the weapons labs to predict the performance of newly designed, as yet untested, boosted primaries of the kind currently in stockpile is indeed impressive -- there were no significant surprises.  This could hardly have been the case had these primaries been sensitive to differences that inevitably exist between the weapon configuration calculated and the weapon tested."  (p. 25, emphasis added)

[18] This and the next two citations are found in Mello, 4/6/98 affidavit, op. cit.  50 pits per year comes with an option to build up to 80 pits per year using multiple labor shifts.

[19] Medalia, op. cit.

[20] Available from the Study Group.

[21] There is about 59,600 sq. ft. of Category I laboratory space in PF-4, TA-55, of which 15,300 were to be directly dedicated to pit production (see: “Alternatives for Increasing the Nuclear Materials Processing Space at Los Alamos for Future Missions,” Drew Kornreich and Nelson DeMuth, LA-UR-97-1000).  Pit production also has indirect space costs, but these are shared with other programs.  A minimum of some 9,000 sq. ft. of Category I floor space is dedicated to what appear to be obsolete and unnecessary programs, plus several 1,000s of sq. ft. of support space for these programs.  In short, the pit production space at TA-55 could be doubled if necessary.

[22] James Sterngold, “Resurgence for nuclear labs: scientists designing weapons for terror war, planning underground tests,”  San Francisco Chronicle, October 22, 2002 .

[23] Los Alamos Science, [date1, date2]

[24] While not specific to this treaty, see the stockpile reduction option in: Greg Mello, Bill Weida, and Andy Lichterman, “The Stockpile Stewardship Charade,” Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 1999, National Academy of Sciences, at http://www.nap.edu/issues/15.3/mello.htm.


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