"On Plutonium Pit Production: it's the pits"


“Just what we need – more nuclear weapons.”

On plutonium pit production: it’s the pits

Fall 2002 -- By Greg Mello

The "pit" of a nuclear weapon is the core of its first, or "primary," stage.  In all but one  U.S. weapon, the main fissile material in the pit is an isotope of plutonium, Pu-239, in the form of a hollow, round metal shell.  This in turn is surrounded by a shell of beryllium (a metal so toxic it has largely been removed from ordinary commerce), one or more shells of a heavy metal like uranium, and a stainless steel cover.  In a weapon, the pit is surrounded by high explosive.

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 U.S. has approximately 24,000 intact pits, of which most (and possible all) are in perfect working order -- meaning they would detonate in a blast a little smaller than the one at Hiroshima if collapsed using high explosive.  Of these, about 10,600 pits are inside weapons, either deployed or in reserve, and the rest are in sealed drums in bunkers at the Pantex nuclear weapons assembly plant near Amarillo, Texas.  Of the pits in storage, about 5,000 have been specially earmarked for possible reuse.

These  pits were costly to make.  The U.S. has spent literally hundreds of billions of dollars to make them, and in the process has left behind a toxic archipelago of contaminated sites across several states, land that will never be fully restored for human use.  Also left behind are the literally thousands of grieving family members who lost loved ones to radioactive contamination in the mines, mills, factories, test sites, and the communities surrounding them.  No full accounting of the human or environmental cost has ever been made, and the Department of Energy (DOE) has spent more than a hundred million dollars fighting lawsuits initiated by survivors, environmental groups, and states. 

Of particular interest in New Mexico, the more concentrated wastes from pit production are the raison d’etre of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) site near Carlsbad.

Despite our 24,000 pit stockpile, pit production is slowly starting up in Los Alamos, and new facilities for pit components are also planned for Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  Additional plutonium facilities are planned for Los Alamos, which may also abet pit manufacturing.   In addition, a brand new "Modern Pit Facility" is planned for an as-yet-unnamed site, to be selected from a list of sites which includes the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina, the Nevada Test Site, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the WIPP Site near Carlsbad.

Prior DOE studies have named SRS as the top-seeded site for this mission, but DOE's latest site ranking lists Los Alamos as "#1," despite protestations from LANL.  That being said, it’s not clear that these rankings mean very much, as DOE must weigh many factors in selecting a site, including not just objective site features but also local politics, the attractiveness of the area to the pliant yet skilled workforce required, and the availability of nearby waste dumps.

Los Alamos isn’t new to the pit business.  It has always made pits, from the ones detonated at Alamogordo and Nagasaki to all the others in the U.S. stockpile up to 1952, when the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver was opened.  After that it made a steady stream of pits for development and testing purposes.  Over the decades, all kinds of pits were made at Los Alamos.  And according to published reports, all these pits worked indistinguishably from those made at Rocky Flats.  This is interesting since lately LANL has supposedly been unable to produce a single "certifiable" pit despite more than a decade of costly work.

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 Los Alamos.  A program to make a few pits each year at Los Alamos was then begun, then called the "Surveillance Pit Rebuild Program," for the ostensible purpose of replacing the one or two pits of each type taken apart and examined each year in the stockpile surveillance program.

Ominously, at about this same time, weapons managers at Los Alamos were privately stressing to their employees that the lab might design and build small lots of "special" weapons, not actually assembling the weapons until they were requested to do so.

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 at Los Alamos have found that pits are quite stable over time -- their metallic structure generally improves. Minimum pit life is now estimated by Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore Lab at 45-60 years; and maximum pit life is unknown – it could easily be a century, as LANL pit managers have often said.  Each year, pits in the stockpile are carefully examined, so any problems which may develop can be spotted long before they could affect weapon reliability.

The DOE's strategy, at the end of the Clinton period, was that LANL should be where a modern "modular" pit production technology would be demonstrated, with a large-scale facility to be built elsewhere someday using LANL’s technology. By the end of the Clinton era, the phrase "new-design pits" was beginning to appear in DOE budget proposals for the first time.  It is because of “new design” pits that new pit facilities are "needed" at all.

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 Amarillo, approximately 14,000 of them, thousands of which have already been fully tested in substitute designs and could be substituted for deployed pits in some cases at any time. This has even already been done on at least one occasion.  Pit “reuse,” in other words, is less bad than pit “remanufacture.”

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 which the United States has already agreed upon, in a signed and ratified treaty that is now also binding domestic law, to negotiate away. 

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
(NPT), the U.S. could save about $4 billion annually in this and other stockpile programs.  This is a serious amount of money, even to the military. How, one might ask, might these outrageous projects be stopped, projects which, you might notice, are damaging to our national security, to our environment, to our health, and perhaps to our very identity as a state and a nation?

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 Los Alamos does has not lately attracted the attention of students, faculty, and alumni at the  University of California. If Los Alamos' manufacturing role were better known, this might not remain the case. For one reason or another, the employees don't particularly like the business of making pits either, and LANL now offers substantial cash bonuses to keep its experienced plutonium workers "on the line."

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.

Greg Mello is the Director of the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG). The mission of the Los Alamos Study Group is to end nuclear weapons development, to de-legitimize these weapons, and to build a more effective nonproliferation regime.  We use research, synthesis, publications, media contacts, direct advocacy, administrative intervention, and grassroots organizing.  We focus locally on the Los Alamos National Laboratory and nationally on issues of nuclear weapons policy.

Website: www.lasg.org. Contact: (505) 265-1200 for more information on what you can do.

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