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"Forget the Rest" blog

Los Alamos Monitor

September 14, 2006

Guest Column

Pit production: once begun, hard to control

In late 2007 Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is slated to begin production of plutonium warhead cores (“pits”) for the U.S. stockpile.  If this occurs I believe it will be the first time LANL has made pits for the stockpile since 1949 and it will be the first time the U.S. has produced new stockpile pits since 1989.

Producing pits for the stockpile has a number of serious implications for the lab, the town, and the country.  Before discussing these, I would like to lay out some of what is publicly known about possible future pit production at LANL.

According to National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) budget submittals and the LANL draft site-wide environmental impact statement (SWEIS), the rate of pit production, now zero, is supposed to reach between 30 and 50 stockpile pits/year by 2012 if not before, or up to 80 pits/year including test pits and rejects.

The first pits to be made are for W88 475-kiloton submarine-launched warheads, to be made at a rate of 10 per year.  Congressional budget submittals indicate that a total of 70 W88s are to be produced between early FY2008 and FY2014.

In addition, by 2012 if not well before (conflicting accounts are given) pits for at least one version of the “Reliable Replacement Warhead” (RRW) are slated to begin production.

According to NNSA chief Linton Brooks, RRWs are supposed to replace all the pits in the stockpile, expected to number about 6,000 in 2012.  The first weapons to be replaced are the two Trident warheads, the W76 and W88. 

The W76 is now in the beginning stages of a $2.5 billion upgrade, expected to extend its life for another 30 years.  (This also happens to be the expected life of the RRW.  Go figure.)

What will happen after 2012, the end of the SWEIS analysis period? 

That depends on decisions made between now and then.  One of the most crucial decisions is now pending before the Energy and Water Appropriations Conference Committee, namely whether to continue funding for the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) building. 

The CMRR is a $1 billion, 400,000 square-foot facility that would provide pit production support at TA-55, among secondary purposes.

The House Appropriations Committee, led in this matter by David Hobson (R-OH), believes the CMRR is “irrational” and “absurd” and has proposed cutting all funding (last year) or nearly all funding (this year) for the project.  Senator Domenici got the CMRR fully funded last year.  This year’s negotiations are still pending and it is unlikely that a decision will take place before the Nov. 7 elections.

How many pits might LANL make?  Possibly all of them.  Take a look at the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) report on the future of the nuclear weapons complex. 

The SEAB, while generally endorsing the concept of a “Consolidated Nuclear Production Center” (CNPC) that would integrate all major nuclear activities at a single site, also advised that LANL’s main plutonium building (PF-4) could produce 20 times as many pits per year as it now does.  Depending on how one interprets this, PF-4’s alleged potential production appears to be in the range of 200-400 pits/year.

NNSA’s most recent admitted plan for large-scale pit production was the so-called Modern Pit Facility (MPF), a roughly $4 billion project capable of making 125-450 pits/year, originally to come on line circa 2020.  LANL was the preferred site for the MPF from the technical perspective.

NNSA, having failed to sell this plan, now requests no funding for the MPF through at least 2011.  Instead, the “realignment of prior Modern Pit Facility funding starting in FY 2007 will support NNSA planning to increase pit manufacturing capacity at LANL.”

Looking at total pit-manufacturing sunk costs at LANL since 1995, DOE and NNSA have already spent about $2.5 B in 2006 dollars laying the groundwork for pit production at LANL.  A decade from now, NNSA (assuming its requests are funded), will have spent a few more billions of dollars on pit production at LANL (the exact number depending on what you want to count). 

So 10 years from now, if all goes according to published plans, funds comparable in size and purpose to those anticipated for the MPF will have been spent at LANL and a production capacity comparable to the MPF will have been achieved.

How?  NNSA plans to enable greater pit production capacity at LANL by a number of means.  The first is new and refurbished facilities, centrally the CMRR, which is now in the early stages of design/build and slated to begin operation in 2014. 

In addition to the CMRR there is the “Plutonium Facility Complex Refurbishment Project,” major security and transportation investments, expansion of the nuclear waste disposal area at TA-54, the “Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility Upgrade Project” in TA-50, and a TA-55 radiography facility, to pick only the most obvious.

Second, the Department of Energy (DOE) and NNSA hope to relocate plutonium-238 activities from PF-4 to the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), roughly doubling the floor space available to pit production in PF-4.

Third, the RRW will be designed for automated manufacture, with fewer “hands-on” steps, fewer hazardous materials, looser tolerances in key places, and fewer manufacturing steps and work stations overall. 

These design changes, taken together and combined with other “agile” manufacturing innovations would enable, it is thought, much greater production rates.

Finally, reconfiguration of production equipment and relocation of stored material and light laboratory functions may liberate more PF-4 space and enable what is available to be used more efficiently for pit production.

If made, all these investments will likely commit LANL to being the sole
U.S. pit production facility.  What other billions would then be available for another?

Next time: the implications of pit production for the lab and the town.

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

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