Commentary - Why Make More Plutonium Pits


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Sunday, November 10, 2002

OTHER VOICES: Guest Commentary

Why Make More Plutonium Pits?
By Greg Mello Director of Los Alamos Study Group
The Department of Energy has proposed building a new factory for the manufacture of plutonium pits, the cores of the first stage of nuclear weapons. Why?

The U.S. has today roughly 24,000 plutonium pits. About 10,600 are in nuclear weapons; there are also some 14,000 pits in storage near Amarillo. Of the pits in storage, approximately 5,000 have been earmarked for reuse; the other 9,000 pits may work just fine as well.

Officials at the nuclear labs say pits last for a minimum of 45 to 60 years, and probably decades longer, if not longer still. Since the oldest pits in the stockpile were made in about 1970, these oldest pits could begin to fail in 2015 at the earliest, using the most conservative information available publicly.

By that time, over two-thirds of the weapons in the U.S. arsenal will no longer be deployed. The recent U.S.-Russian agreement will remove some 6,446 warheads of varying ages from deployed status by the end of 2012, not counting any reductions in tactical weapons that may also take place. The pits in those inactive weapons represent a "hedge" against pit aging in the remaining deployed weapons, which will by then consist of 2,200 strategic weapons and no more than 1,160 tactical weapons.

This is a huge pit reserve, and a quite modern one too — and all the pits in it are fully tested and certified already, unlike the ones that would be made in a new factory.

Even if this somehow weren't enough, Los Alamos could make more than enough pits. For several years now, Los Alamos has been paid princely sums to create, in part of its existing plutonium facility, a manufacturing capacity for 50 pits per year, or 80 pits/year with multiple shifts, a capacity that Los Alamos once said it already had.

The lab space involved is modest, and these manufacturing rates could be doubled within the existing facility by retiring obsolete and unnecessary projects.

Aside from being completely unnecessary, DOE's proposed factory raises other troubling issues. In 1970, the United States ratified the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the cornerstone of the world's nonproliferation regime. Article VI obligates nuclear-weapon states "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament."

There are two important norms here: "do not improve nuclear weapons," and "do not possess them" — whether it is continuous non-possession (by most countries), or eventual non-possession (by the five countries recognized as nuclear-weapon states in the treaty). Our obligation to disarm was emphasized by the International Court of Justice in 1996, which unanimously ruled, "There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control." The U.S. recommitted itself to this principle as recently as May 2000 when, along with the other nuclear-weapons states, it agreed to "an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States and parties are committed under Article VI." The proposal to build a new pit factory is an affront to these obligations, especially given the huge pit reserve, much of it modern, and the known minimum longevity of pits.

Taking these and other facts in hand, one can only conclude that the primary purpose of this facility is to make types of pits that do not now exist — that is, new weapons. These new weapons would likely have to be tested in full-up nuclear explosive tests, a reality that senior officials at the labs and DOE have recently begun to unveil to the public.

The new facility is supposed to cost $2 billion to $4 billion to build, but there will also be operating costs, plus the costs of waste disposal, security, transportation, and final decommissioning and cleanup, among other costs. It would not be surprising if the total life-cycle cost reached $30 billion or more.

At Rocky Flats, which made pits from 1952 to 1989, cleanup will cost very roughly $10 billion, not including long-term monitoring and care.

Even after spending this much, the widespread soil contamination at the site will probably never be cleaned up. While the proposed new plant likely would not be as contaminating and dangerous as "Rocky" was, this cannot be guaranteed. New (or newly appreciated) hazards such as terrorism and sabotage have risen as risk factors, even as other risks have purportedly declined. The hazard from terrorist attack at such a facility cannot be easily bounded, and the steps necessary to prevent terrorism and sabotage will make such a facility a poor place to work, not even considering the intrinsic medical and moral hazards of working there.

For all these reasons and more, attempts over the last decade to construct a new plutonium pit factory have been highly controversial, both in New Mexico and nationally. They should be. DOE's plan is neither "modern" nor smart, and if allowed to go forward it will gravely damage our national security, in every way that phrase can be interpreted.

Mello is director of the Los Alamos Study Group and visiting fellow with the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University.  

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