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AMA Globe-News

Pantex near Amarillo among potential sites for plutonium pit production

Posted July 1, 2017 10:35 pm - Updated July 2, 2017 01:51 pm
By Ben Egel

Pantex PTs

Pantex Plant technicians’ work can include disassembly and inspection, flight testing, system lab testing and component testing and material evaluation. (Provided photo) Pantex Plant, where technicians perform a wide array of functions on nuclear weapons, is among the sites nationwide under consideration for producing plutonium pits. (Provided photo)

The Pantex Plant outside Amarillo is one of three nuclear weapons sites being considered to produce plutonium “pits,” the explosive cores currently held at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Los Alamos has not produced a pit since 2011, according to The Center for Public Integrity, and a rash of workplace safety issues have forced the site to remain largely closed since 2013.

James McConnell, National Nuclear Security Administration associate administrator for safety, infrastructure, and operations, told The Center for Public Integrity the department was considering “adding capabilities or leveraging existing capabilities elsewhere in the country, at other sites where plutonium is already present or has been used.” McConnell added site analyses would be complete by the end of summer.

Plutonium is currently handled at Savannah River Site in South Carolina, Nevada National Security Site and Pantex, where the pits are removed before being transported to Los Alamos.

Thousands of pits are stored at Pantex at a given time.

NNSA acting press secretary Al Stotts said the department had “no additional comment about the ongoing analysis of alternatives.” Pantex also declined to comment.

But Los Alamos Study Group executive director Greg Mello noted the three above sites, as well as plants near Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Carlsbad, N.M., had previously been considered for pit production. Mello said he had heard recent rumblings that Savannah River Site, where the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility is slated to be terminated, could take over some of Los Alamos’ responsibilities.

The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act orders the NNSA produce 30 pits per year by 2026, though industry professionals say it’ll take longer to meet that goal. Mello said there was political pressure but no immediate need to create more — and certainly not at such an aggressive pace.

U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, chairs the House Armed Services Committee and has long advocated for more military spending, including $10.4 billion for nuclear weapons activities in the committee’s National Defense Authorization Act approved Wednesday. Mello said the congressman could help steer pit development toward Pantex.

“The thing that Pantex has is a history of production, and they have Mac Thornberry. Maybe that’s it,” Mello said.

Still, Mello said he thought Los Alamos’ infrastructure would help it keep a stronghold on pit production.

The NNSA considered moving pit operations to Pantex throughout the 1990s when Mello’s wife, Trish Williams-Mello, was a farmer near the plant’s northwest side.

Doris Smith was one of Williams-Mello’s neighbors. She and her husband founded a group called Panhandle Area Neighbors and Landowners after Pantex expressed interest in buying their land when considering expansion to develop pits.

The Department of Energy eventually moved pit operations to Los Alamos. City of Amarillo and Amarillo Economic Development Corp. leaders welcomed the extra business at the time, but some residents were wary of plutonium’s potentially deadly biological effects.

Pantex hosted monthly community meetings throughout the mid-1990s in an attempt to assuage concerns, but Smith said she wasn’t happy with the company’s transparency during the meetings and wasn’t going to give up the farm that had been in her family since the early 20th century.

“They would tell you what they wanted you to know,” Smith said. “They didn’t necessarily lie to you — they just didn’t tell you the whole truth.”

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