“Just what we need – more nuclear weapons.”
On plutonium pit production: it’s the pits
Fall 2002 -- By
Pits have only about 30 parts, and while they are manufactured to very tight tolerances, they are not complicated objects. Most pit components are not made of nuclear materials, and so these parts can be made in a variety of locations. It is the plutonium shell, and the assembly of the whole, which are the rate-limiting steps in production.
At the present time the
pits were costly to make.
Of particular interest in
Despite our 24,000 pit stockpile, pit production is slowly starting up
Prior DOE studies have named SRS as the top-seeded site
for this mission, but DOE's latest site ranking lists
For most of the Cold War, pits were made at the Rocky Flats Plant. “Rocky” was closed in 1989 after a raid by the
FBI and EPA revealed massive violations of environmental law. In 1992, DOE gave up ever opening the plant
again. At that time, key equipment
and personnel were quietly moved from Rocky Flats to
Ominously, at about this same time, weapons managers
In the middle 1990s, this "Surveillance Pit Rebuild" program gradually morphed into a much larger project, and by 1997, LANL was well on its way to acquiring a mid-scale production capability: 50 pits per year, or 80 if multiple shifts were used.
These plans were delivered a setback when, in response to a report by the Study Group based on LANL’s own data, LANL was forced by outside safety officials to actually look for earthquake faults. LANL staff then discovered a modern, presumably-active earthquake fault directly under the lab's largest building, a building which was to play an important role in pit production. So the DOE then ordered LANL to stop planning to use that building for pit manufacturing. Subsequently, after additional safety problems in the old building became apparent, plans were dusted off for a brand new plutonium facility, to be located next to the existing one at LANL's TA-55.
This proposed new facility is called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Building Replacement Project. It will, unless modified from the current plan to have only light analytical laboratories, unnecessarily expand LANL's potential plutonium processing pit-making capacity. It is now in preliminary design and environmental review. The environmental review will likely pass with flying colors.
Meanwhile, LANL is still trying to make its "first" pit - something it used to do routinely for nuclear tests. Mysteriously, LANL seems to be unable to make a pit, despite spending almost $1 billion dollars in the effort so far. Likewise somewhat mysterious is the fact that, despite this lack of performance, there has been no serious investigation of where all the money has gone. The ultimate cost of the first certified pit to come from LANL is now estimated by the Congressional Research Service to be $1.74 billion, a figure which does not include the construction of the new building. The delivery date for "The First Pit" is to be about 2007, at which time a modest pit production capability is supposed to be in place. For comparison, the annual cost of the "pit rebuild program," described throughout the mid-1990s as a capability which already existed of about the same scale, was in the neighborhood of $10-20 million.
Now, the supposed purpose of this expensive, dangerous,
and rather mysterious “pit frenzy” is to have the capacity to make pits
just in case something bad happens to the ones we have. Yet studies
The DOE's strategy, at the end of the
The arrival of President Bush and Vice President Cheney in the White House set in motion plans for the large-scale pit facility, which had been ready and waiting. It was no longer referred to as "large-scale," but rather "modern." So two pit manufacturing facilities: one larger (somewhere) and one smaller (at LANL) are now in the works, with the latter being tightly integrated with design and quite secret onsite testing facilities so that "new-design" pits can be designed, tested, and built without negative publicity. LANL Director John Browne has taken the opportunity provided by the advent of the Modern Pit Facility to say, very misleadingly, that LANL does not want the pit production mission. LANL already has that mission, in spades, and will have more of it.
Is the Modern Pit Facility in any sense "needed?" No. If, for example, the U.S. stockpile were to decline to the level required in the Bush-Putin agreement (2,200 strategic weapons, plus tactical weapons), and the huge “inactive” stockpile were simply renamed “retired,” then some 6,400 pits, most of them fairly new, could be made available with the stroke of a pen.
In addition, LANL mid-capacity production facility would
be able to make pits, and this could even be doubled in capacity within
the existing building, if certain nuclear weapons and nuclear power research
projects were downsized. And there
is that huge reserve of pits in
What is absolutely key is not to add more plutonium processing floor space, either in a “Modern Pit Facility” or in the new plutonium building proposed in addition to this at LANL. LANL’s facilities are already more capable than those of most nuclear-armed nations, and we don’t need to expand them. The actual manufacturing space needed for pits is quite small, and more is “needed,” small expansions in floor space could mean big expansions of manufacturing capacity. In the case of the Modern Pit Facility, it only takes a 10% increase in space to go from the capacity of 150 pits per year (single shift) -- which LANL could already do if they chose to -- to a capacity of 450 pits/yr (double shift). Public outcry, domestic and international, must focus on preventing “breakout,” both quantitative (as in number of pits) and qualitative (as in new pit designs). Since new pit designs happen in secret, the only real way to help prevent them at the present time is to hold the line on total facility space.
In all our discussions, we must keep in the forefront
that these are
weapons of mass destruction we are talking about. They are weapons
So is the new plutonium facility at LANL needed? There will always be more possible programs than space currently available. If LANL were to consolidate and limit its missions, rather than expand and multiply them, the existing plutonium facility, along with already-existing outlying laboratories, would be adequate. But the reverse is happening. LANL's nuclear weapons program has more than doubled in size in the last few years. Instead of shrinking after the Cold War ended, LANL's nuclear weapons programs are larger than they have ever been.
The truth is that pit production may indeed be needed -- but for just two reasons:
· first, to provide a rationale for the entire multi-state design, development, testing, and production complex that allows for recruitment and training of new, skilled workers, retention of highly-qualified essential staff, a sense of overall purpose, and a justification for funding; and
second, to make new-design pits for new
missions, which in the long run is vital for the legitimacy of nuclear
If, conversely, there were reductions in the number and
types of nuclear weapons, together with a more conservative approach to
maintaining them, pending the
eventual disarmament required under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty
There are any number of ways they might stopped, but causation in these matters is inscrutable. The key thing, I believe, is to not try too hard to be clever. Clever strategies almost never work for us. There are no silver bullets for this beast, which must be transformed by patient sacrifice.
A clue as to direction is provided by the fact that even Dr. Browne, as
a public relations principle, chose to distance his laboratory from the
pit production mission, as his predecessors have also done when possible. Even
he, in this sense, is ashamed of this mission. His employer, the
University of California (UC), is the best-funded
developer and manufacturer of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) on the
planet, and cannot be, in its institutional soul, very happy about this. What
LANL requires permission from society at every level to do this work -- national, local, and from its own employees, and if that permission is effectively withdrawn it cannot proceed. Nuclear weapons comprise, in the words of Indian journalist Praful Bidwai, an "epochal injustice." Only by summoning the moral force of a free people can we be rid of them, and more importantly, what they represent. The skilled and creative exercise of that force, both in controlling a rogue sovereignty within our borders as well as in creating a humane and dignified future for our children, is the minimum obligation of democracy. The effort itself is sufficient. We cannot know our successes in advance. Without a spirited effort to renew our ideals, we will lose not only them but ourselves.
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