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"Forget the Rest" blog

Los Alamos Monitor

October 4, 2006

Guest Column

Pit production will change Los Alamos

In my last column (9/14/06) I made the case that Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is well on the way to harboring a plutonium warhead core (“pit”) factory, a kind “Modern Pit Facility,”now being assembled from existing facilities and proposed new ones.

Still, many serious hurdles remain before Los Alamos takes up the Rocky Flats mantle.  LANL’s facilities are old and they will be ill-suited for production even after the proposed repairs.

Neither LANL’s existing and proposed buildings, nor its geographical setting, provide high physical security despite the heroic measures now beginning. 

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) acknowledges in its “Complex 2030” plan that LANL should not retain proliferation-sensitive inventories of special nuclear materials past 2022.  Yet between now and 2014 the agency would like to invest a couple of billion dollars in production-related facilities at LANL.

This contradiction raises questions we can’t answer here.  What are we dealing with – incompetence, deception, runaway greed or deeper problems related to the irrationality at the heart of the nuclear weapons enterprise as a whole?

Or, as seems likely, all of the above?

Meanwhile anyone who cares about Los Alamos will want to take a very hard look at the consequences of hosting a pit factory.  Pit production, like Goethe’s story of the sorcerer’s apprentice, is about somebody’s desire for power that ends up being very hard to control.

Should plutonium manufacturing really take root in Los Alamos, the lab’s culture will change dramatically.  Science, however we define it, must be de-emphasized financially and culturally.

Pit production, with its associated security and safety needs and its expensive new construction, will trump most science.  There are very few halfway measures – the costs and impacts tend to come in large chunks or not at all. 

NNSA’s highest priority is now the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) project and the associated “responsive infrastructure.”  LANL is the pivotal site for these slogans, because there is as yet no pit manufacturing capacity in the U.S. and pits will remain the rate-determining step for RRW manufacture.

Meanwhile LANL’s overall budget is unlikely to grow and may decline somewhat.  Within it, increases in management fee, pension fund contributions, and gross receipts tax have already occurred. 

Inflation will keep happening.  Increasing construction budgets, much of it supporting pit production and much of it currently low-balled, will cut further into program budgets. 

The crystal ball is cloudy, but a decent guesstimate might be that these trends will cut science at LANL by about half.  LANS will protect pit production, because NNSA values it most highly and because the LANS partners value their $36.6 billion contract to manage LANL.

This will change the culture at LANL.  Many good scientists won’t come here.  LANL may well evolve from what many staff understand to be a "science lab" with some manufacturing to a predominately manufacturing center that does a little science on the side. 

Plutonium, with its panoply of costs, financial and otherwise, is thus rather toxic to non-plutonium science.

There’s more, of course.  Los Alamos County already has the largest active nuclear waste disposal site in New Mexico, much bigger by volume than WIPP.  It is run, oddly enough, by the pit manufacturing directorate.

There’s no permit or license, no lining, no cover and no commitment to ever remove any waste.  Pit production and related activities make most of the new waste. 

Cleanup?  It’s hard to believe NNSA will find the gigabucks necessary to clean up TA-54 and most of the other old dumps while dumping new waste every week, also in TA-54.

There will, of course, be accidents of one kind and another associated with pit production.

The key thing is not the risk of hypothetical future events but the way risk finds expression in everyday life, for example through heightened security.

Greg Mello is the director of the Los Alamos Study Group.

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