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Report shows LANL competing with South Carolina site for pit production beyond 2026

December 5, 2017

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

LANL Area G waste drums

Drums containing materials contaminated with radioactive substances are stored in Area G at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2003. New Mexican file photo

Despite high costs and an elongated time frame, a key nuclear weapons project is expected to remain at Los Alamos National Laboratory until at least 2026, according to details from federal report that has not yet been released to the public.

A PowerPoint overview of a National Nuclear Security Administration report obtained by The New Mexican shows the agency intends to invest at least $1 billion at the lab over the next five years to support continued plutonium pit production — the work of casting softball-sized plutonium metal orbs to create a fission reaction inside a nuclear weapon.

If Los Alamos is chosen as the permanent location for a production-line facility for the pits, it would dramatically increase the lab’s work with nuclear material, increasing the output of its weapons components to what officials have called “unprecedented” levels. Construction is expected to cost more than $7.5 billion, making it one of the most expensive building projects to occur at the lab.

The proposed work has raised questions from nuclear watchdogs and some members of Congress about how increasing production could elevate the risk of accidents and environmental contamination.

But the National Nuclear Security Administration also is eyeing a nuclear weapons lab in South Carolina, and the leaked presentation indicates the alternative site may be seen by the agency as a more attractive place to do that work, beginning in 2024. The project at another site would cost between $500 million and $2 billion less than at Los Alamos.

The New Mexico lab is the only U.S. Energy Department site where work with pits is underway. The lab intends to build four test pits by the end of September, with the goal of producing 30 war-ready pits by 2026.

But without constructing a new building, the lab may be unable to create more than 30 pits ever, the report states.

To reach the goal of 30 pits per year, an additional $2 billion would be needed to replace work capabilities relied upon in the largely condemned Chemistry Metallurgy Research building.

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s preferred alternative for pit production, according to the presentation, is a repurposed building that had been poised for a different nuclear project at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. It is expected to cost a maximum of $5.4 billion and be completed by 2031, but runs the risk of “reconfiguring a partially completed facility for a new mission in a new location.”

Los Alamos is listed as the second “preferred alternative,” but the central risk, the document states, is “less favorable cost and schedule for achieving a sustained 80 [pits-per-year] facility.”

The document also indicates the National Nuclear Security Administration might be interested in producing a larger quantity of pits more quickly. The agency had said it hoped to create between 50 and 80 pits per year by 2030, but now it is saying it would like to create “no fewer” than 80 pits per year within the next 12 years.

Los Alamos has not produced a war-ready pit since 2011, when serious nuclear safety concerns and a near accident caused production to stop for almost three years. The lab produced 29 war-ready pits prior to that safety pause and two test pits last year.

The agency considered 41 options for various approaches to future pit production, but 36 were eliminated because of a lack of space, high costs, time and the condition of the facility.

In its analysis, the National Nuclear Security Administration also considered a site’s ability to reuse old pits and the potential to handle a “surge” in production. Workforce qualifications, the environment and transportation also were considered.

A number of concerns have been raised this year about the safety of future pit production at Los Alamos from members of Congress, from a panel of safety advisers for the Energy Department and from media reports. Issues include a number of safety issues at the plutonium facility, plus aging infrastructure and gaps in workforce skills. Los Alamos also was the only nuclear site to fail an annual review of a nuclear safety program, according to a report released in January.

Three of New Mexico’s Democratic members of Congress — Sens. Tom Udall, Martin Heinrich and Rep. Ben Ray Luján — however, have called the National Nuclear Security Administration’s report “deeply flawed” and have pushed for a comprehensive review of it by the Nuclear Weapons Council.

The congressmen said in a shared statement last week that they “strongly support Los Alamos National Laboratory’s role as the nation’s Center of Excellence for Plutonium Research.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.


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