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Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor

November 17, 2017

Moving Pit Production From New Mexico Would be Harder Under NDAA

By Dan Leone

molten plutonium

The massive defense authorization bill now on its way to President Donald Trump’s desk would make it harder for the Department of Energy to move plutonium pit production out of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico — something the agency has not actually proposed doing.

However, that the Department of Energy (DOE) has even entertained the possibility prompted New Mexico’s Senate delegation to forbid the agency from producing pits, the fissile cores of modern nuclear warheads, anywhere but Los Alamos ― unless the secretary of defense and the administrator of DOE’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration approve an alternative within five months of Trump signing the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.

Failing that, the NNSA “shall carry out the modular building strategy … at Los Alamos National Laboratory,” reads the roughly 650-page bicameral conference report appended to the approximately 1,700-page bill. The House and Senate this week gave their final approval to the bill, which now heads to Trump for a signature. 

The “modular building strategy” refers to a plan codified in the NDAA for fiscal 2013, which requires DOE to build a new plutonium pit-production facility and a new office building to support it at Los Alamos.

The cost of the new plutonium plant would be capped at $3.7 billion, under the 2013 law. The facility would replace the lab’s aging — and increasingly hazardous — Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility. The existing plant is Cold War-vintage infrastructure built in 1952.

By 2030, DOE plans to produce between 50 and 80 plutonium pits a year to replenish the strength of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. According to the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan DOE released this week, pit-production would ramp up in phases. The agency aims to produce “not less than 10 War Reserve pits in 2024, not less than 20 War Reserve pits in 2025, and not less than 30 War Reserve pits in 2026,” according to the annual stockpile report.

A great deal of DOE’s future pit work is baked into the next management and operations contract for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which the agency is on track to award next April or May. The Energy Department put the contract out for bid Oct. 25, and bids are due Dec. 11.

What the alternatives to Los Alamos pit production might be are not clear. DOE has avoided specifics in public pronouncements about its official analysis of alternatives, though the agency has given hints.

In June, for example, James McConnell, associate NNSA administrator for safety, infrastructure, and operations, told an independent federal nuclear safety watchdog the agency was sitting on an official analysis of alternatives that has not yet been published.

Among other things, DOE is weighing whether it could produce plutonium using facilities outside of Los Alamos and New Mexico “by adding capabilities or leveraging the existing capabilities elsewhere in the country at other sites where plutonium is already present or has been used,” McConnell told the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board during a public hearing in Albuquerque.

McConnell would not say which other sites or capabilities might play a role in pit production, though some people — the most vocal of whom are staunch nonproliferation and disarmament activists — immediately pointed a finger at the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at DOE’s Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C.

The Trump administration, like the Obama administration, wants to cancel the South Carolina facility, which is being built to turn 34 metric tons of surplus weapon-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. Both the SRS Watch group in Aiken and the Los Alamos Study Group in New Mexico suggested DOE might try to shift some pit work to the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, rather than tear it down.

Greg Mello, head of the Los Alamos Study Group, stuck to the notion Thursday, saying by email that New Mexico’s U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich (D) and Tom Udall (D) “are afraid South Carolina might steal their bacon. They want [Los Alamos] to be a plutonium pit factory.”

Disarmament advocates contend the U.S. does not need new pit-production capacity to continue the 30-year, $1-trillion-plus nuclear modernization effort started in 2016 by the Barack Obama administration.

The Energy Department did not reply to a request for comment.

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