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Amid safety concerns at LANL, Udall weighs in on lab’s next mission: Pit production


Posted: Saturday, February 21, 2015 8:00 pm | Updated: 7:02 pm, Mon Feb 23, 2015.

By Patrick Malone
The New Mexican

Even as the birthplace of the atomic bomb continues to reel from its role in a radiation leak last year that stranded nuclear waste indefinitely at labs throughout the country, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall said Los Alamos National Laboratory remains the nation’s only option for ramped-up production of nuclear weapon triggers.

“As long as we have nuclear weapons, they have to have pits, and Los Alamos does that,” Udall, D-N.M., told The New Mexican on Friday.

Since the dramatic 1989 federal raid that shut down the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, which churned out up to 2,000 nuclear triggers a year during the Cold War, Los Alamos has been the lone national lab to produce plutonium pits. LANL has produced a total of 30 pits since 2007.

The lab’s next grand-scale mission, to produce plutonium pits at a level not seen since the Cold War, is ensconced in the federal budget. It calls for Los Alamos to make 30 pits a year by 2026, and crank up production to 80 pits per year by 2030. A massive construction project expected to cost several billion dollars would be needed to render old buildings at Los Alamos safe for the job, and the lab’s location on a seismically active fault raises concerns about whether it will ever be truly fit for the mission.

The pits manufactured at Los Alamos would be used to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal. They would replace aging components in existing weapons. But some critics question whether replacing triggers is necessary yet. Some scientific reports suggest the national nuclear arsenal can function without replacing pits for many more decades.

Udall said whether the components truly need to be replaced is a question he’d like to see answered definitively. Even though he’s often regarded as a champion of the lab and other sites in the state tied to the national nuclear weapons campaign, Udall said he supports a shift in the U.S. nuclear posture that would alleviate the need for pit production of the magnitude called for in the budget.

“What I hope for is that we have aggressive efforts by our president and by the Senate, and we get nuclear agreements in place where we can reduce the amount of weapons, and we need fewer pits and you don’t have to have the robust kind of facility that some people talk about,” he said.

As Los Alamos prepares to embark on its latest mission, lingering questions about its culture of safety abound. A volatile mix of chemicals caused a drum of nuclear waste from the lab to rupture Feb. 14, 2014, at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, also known as WIPP. The lab had failed to disclose the dangerous mix it had created in the drum — by omitting some of the drum’s contents in a formal description of the waste and lying about others.

The radiation leak has prevented WIPP, the nation’s foremost repository for waste from Cold War-era weapons production, from receiving waste shipments for more than a year. Los Alamos and other national labs that relied on the dump are housing waste on-site until WIPP reopens. Some activities could resume at the site come early next year, but full operations at WIPP could still be years away.

“There’s radioactive waste all across the country that needs to be disposed of in that site, and now that’s been stopped because of this mistake,” Udall said.

The radiation leak at WIPP and missteps in Los Alamos and Carlsbad that led up to it motivated the New Mexico Environment Department to propose more than $54 million in fines against the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractors that manage the sites. The Energy Department is fighting the fines, and in a budget summary for next year, the department proposes to use money earmarked for environmental cleanup at LANL to pay the nearly $37 million in fines levied against Los Alamos if necessary.

New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn opposes using cleanup funds to pay the fines, he said in a letter announcing the fines in December. Doing so, Flynn wrote, “only serves to punish New Mexico for DOE’s own mistakes.”

Flynn recently said he is prepared to fine LANL another $100 million for its missteps if negotiations over the first set of fines drag on.

Udall said he supports the action Flynn has taken to address the circumstances that led up to the WIPP leak.

“If you’re weighing in and saying they’ve made a big mistake and they need to pay for it and there are consequences, I support them,” Udall said.

He said the assurances Carlsbad was given that WIPP would never leak proved to be wrong, and errors at Los Alamos played a pivotal role in that lesson. He said the fresh failures of the past year at Los Alamos must guide a renewed commitment to safety as the lab embarks on its new mission of mass producing plutonium pits.

“It’s pretty clear that Los Alamos’ people, the scientists and others that were working on this, made a mistake. … The big question now is how do we move forward?” Udall said. “How do we make sure we don’t make mistakes like that again?”

Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.

Correction: Feb. 23, 2015

A previous version of this incorrectly reported that some scientific reports suggest the national nuclear weapons stockpile can function “with” replacing certain components for many years. The story should have said some scientific reports suggest the arsenal can function “without” replacing those components for many years.

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