Groups Release Key DOE Documents on Expanded Plutonium Pit Production, DOE Nuclear Weapons Plan Not Supported by Recent Congressional Actions

Santa Fe, NM & Columbia, SCTwo key U.S. Department of Energy documents on future production of plutonium “pits” for nuclear weapons, not previously released to the public, fail to justify new and upgraded production facilities at both the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina.

The report reveals that the initial cost estimate for these new and upgraded facilities at both sites is $10 billion by 2030, and around $46 billion in total life cycle costs. Plutonium pits are the fissile cores of nuclear weapons. Cost overruns are the rule for major projects undertaken by the National Security Administration (NNSA), the semi-autonomous nuclear weapons agency within DOE, so the costs are likely to rise yet more, according to Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Savannah River Site Watch.

NNSA’s Pu Pit Production Engineering Assessment, originally marked Unclassified Controlled Nuclear Information, was finalized on April 20, 2018. The 293-page document was obtained by Nuclear Watch and is being released so that the public may be fully informed about the agency’s misguided pursuit of new plutonium pit production facilities for future new-design nuclear weapons. The new NNSA Administrator has called future plutonium pit production her highest priority. But the Engineering Assessment fails to answer the most crucial question: why are at least 80 plutonium pits per year needed to begin with?

As background, on May 10, 2018, NNSA announced in a one-page statement:

To achieve DoD’s [Department of Defense] 80 pits per year requirement by 2030, NNSA’s recommended alternative repurposes the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to produce plutonium pits while also maximizing pit production activities at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. This two-prong approach – with at least 50 pits per year produced at Savannah River and at least 30 pits per year at Los Alamos – is the best way to manage the cost, schedule, and risk of such a vital undertaking.

Nuclear Watch also obtained NNSA’s 14-page Plutonium Pit Production Engineering Assessment (EA) Results. That summary document, dated May 2018, relied on the Trump Administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review for claiming the need for expanded plutonium pit production. However, that high-level review failed to state any concrete justification for the alleged pit need. Moreover, Congress is balking at funding any new pit production facilities at SRS, primarily because Sen Lindsey Graham (R-SC) vociferously opposes repurposing the MOX facility, now undergoing termination, and the New Mexico congressional delegation opposes any pit production outside of the Los Alamos Lab.

The Engineering Assessment details that NNSA analyzed four pit production options, one in the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility at SRS and three options at Los Alamos. NNSA chose the most expensive combination, repurposing the MOX facility and increasing pit production at LANL to 30 pits per year. Los Alamos is currently authorized to produce 20 pits per year, but has failed to achieve even that because of ongoing nuclear criticality safety issues (moreover, LANL proposed to produce all 80 pits per year, which NNSA rejected). SRS has never produced pits, raising new nuclear risks at that site and concern about new waste streams.

The Engineering Assessment makes clear that “moderate risks” in the option of repurposing the MOX plant at SRS includes any failure to quickly terminate the MOX project, due to subsequent delays in closing out the project and terminating contracts. Likewise, the report affirms a long-held concern that there is a “very high probability for incomplete construction records/as-built drawings” for the MOX project. On May 10, DOE began congressionally sanctioned termination of the bungled MOX project, but it is being opposed in last-ditch, desperate attempts by Senator Lindsey Graham and the State of South Carolina. The Engineering Assessment makes explicitly clear that terminating the MOX program is the crucial prerequisite for plutonium pit production at SRS and that “some work [on repurposing the MOX plant] can be completed during MOX closeout,” contrary to both the wishes of Congress and requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Expanded plutonium pit production is NOT needed to maintain the safety and reliability of the existing nuclear weapons stockpile, according to Nuclear Watch. In fact, no pit production for the existing nuclear weapons stockpile has been scheduled since 2011, and none is scheduled for the future. Up to 15,000 “excess” pits and another 5,000 in “strategic reserve” are already stored at DOE’s Pantex Plant near Amarillo, TX. In 2006 independent experts found that pits last a least a century[i] (they currently average 40 years old). A 2012 follow-on study by the Livermore Lab found that the “graceful aging of plutonium also reduces the immediate need for a modern high-capacity manufacturing facility to replace pits in the stockpile.” [ii]

Future pit production is for speculative future new designs being pushed by the nuclear weapons labs, so-called Interoperable Warheads for both land- and sub-launched missiles that the Navy does not support.[iii] Moreover, as the Engineering Assessment makes clear, future pits will NOT be exact replicas of existing pits. This could have serious potential consequences because heavily modified plutonium pits cannot be full-scale tested, or alternatively could prompt the U.S. to return to nuclear weapons testing, which would have severe international proliferation consequences.

The Engineering Assessment also explicitly links raising the administrative limit on plutonium at LANL’s “Rad Lab” to expanded pit production. This contradicts a recent draft environmental assessment in which NNSA claimed that re-categorizing the Rad Lab as a Hazard Category-3 nuclear facility was necessary only to maintain basic analytical chemistry capabilities, while omitting any reference whatsoever to expanded plutonium pit production.

The Engineering Assessment briefly outlines what could be a major vulnerability to NNSA’s pit production plans, that is the agency’s future compliance (or not) with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Assessment states that if “compliance is delayed, [this] extends the schedule, increases costs, and/or delays production.” Both Nuclear Watch and SRS Watch assert that the law requires that major federal proposals be subject to public review and comment before a formal decision is made. Arguably, a formal decision to raise production to 80 pits or more per year necessitates a new or supplemental nation-wide programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS), which the new dual-site decision strongly buttresses. Follow-on site-specific NEPA documents will then be necessary, with full public participation and hearings. All of this could introduce substantial delays to NNSA’s plutonium pit production plans.

“While it’s clear that the bungled MOX project is unworkable from technical and cost perspectives and must rapidly be terminated, there is no justification to convert the abandoned facility to a nuclear bomb production plant,” said Tom Clements, director of SRS Watch. “We agree that money must now be spent closing and securing the MOX building, but not on the new, unauthorized pit mission. Spending taxpayer funds to now begin conversion of the MOX plant to pit production, as is indicated in the pit report, is premature and can’t even be considered until Congress approves the NNSA approach for new facilities and an environmental impact review with public participation takes place,” added Clements.

Jay Coghlan, Nuclear Watch Director, commented, “NNSA has already tried four times to expand plutonium pit production, only to be defeated by citizen opposition and its own cost overruns and incompetence. We realize that this fifth attempt at a new pit plant is the most serious yet, but we remain confident it too will fall apart. The enormous financial and environmental costs of new nuclear bomb factories and the fact that expanded plutonium pit production is simply not needed for the existing nuclear weapons stockpile will doom this effort. We think the American public will reject new-design nuclear weapons, which is what this expanded pit production decision is really all about.”

Notes:

NNSA’s Plutonium Pit Production Engineering Assessment (EA) Results (14 slides) is available at

https://nukewatch.org/importantdocs/resources/FINAL-Pu-Pit-Production-EA-Results-05.14.18_Unclassified.pdf

NNSA’s 293-page Pu Pit Production Engineering Assessment is available at

https://nukewatch.org/importantdocs/resources/Pu-Pit-Engineering-Assessment-Report-Rev-2_20-April-2018.pdf

NNSA’s Joint Statement from Ellen M. Lord and Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty on Recapitalization of Plutonium Pit Production, May 10, 2018, is available at

https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/joint-statement-ellen-m-lord-and-lisa-e-gordon-hagerty-recapitalization-plutonium-pit

[i]     Pit Lifetime (JSR-06-335), the MITRE Corporation, JASON, January 27, 2007, p. 19, http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/dod/jason/pit.pdf

This pivotal study came about because at Nuclear Watch New Mexico’s request then-Senator Jeff Bingaman (D.-NM) successfully offered an amendment to the FY 2004 Defense Authorization Act requiring it.

[ii]     Plutonium at 150 years, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, December 2012,

https://www.llnl.gov/news/plutonium-150-years

[iii]    See 2012 Navy memo demonstrating its lack of support for the Interoperable Warhead at https://www.nukewatch.org/importantdocs/resources/Navy-Memo-W87W88.pdf

 

Some Background on Plutonium Pit Production at the Los Alamos Lab

Some Background on Plutonium Pit Production at the Los Alamos Lab

The Washington Post has published the first in a series of articles on nuclear safety lapses in plutonium pit production at the Los Alamos Lab. Plutonium pits are the fissile cores of nuclear weapons that when imploded initiate the thermonuclear detonation of modern weapons.

  • The former production site, the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, was shut down by a 1989 FBI raid investigating environmental crimes. A special grand jury indicted both DOE officials and the contractor, but its report was sealed by a federal judge at the urging of the local federal attorney general. It was only by sheer luck that a major plutonium fire on Mother’s Day 1969 didn’t contaminate Denver with highly carcinogenic plutonium.
  • Senior DOE officials promised New Mexicans 20 years ago that serious lessons were learned from the Rocky Flats Plant and re-established plutonium pit production at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) would always be safe. Since then the Los Alamos Lab has spent billions of taxpayers’ money on plutonium pit production, but as the Washington Post article documents still can’t do it safely.
  • As the Washington Post article reports, a serious nuclear criticality incident was narrowly averted in July 2011, which resulted in the three-year shut down of LANL’s main plutonium facility. Nevertheless, according to the FY 2011 LANL Performance Evaluation Report, the Lab contractor was paid $50 million in pure profit for that year. These Performance Evaluation Reports are the report card whereby the government determines how much the taxpayer will pay nuclear weapons contractors. The government denied taxpayer access to these reports until NukeWatch successfully sued for them.
  • A radioactive waste barrel improperly prepared by LANL ruptured underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), shutting down that multi-billion dollar facility for nearly three years. Radioactive waste disposal at WIPP will remain constrained for years, raising the question of where future LANL bomb-making wastes will go.
  • Plutonium facilities at LANL are supposed to be designed to withstand a serious earthquake that is supposed to occur only once in every 10,000 years. The last serious earthquake near the Lab is believed to have occurred 11,500 years ago. Although there is no exact linear correlation, LANL is in a sense “overdue” for a serious seismic event given its numerous geologic faults.
  • Congress has legislated a requirement that the Los Alamos Lab expand plutonium pit production, regardless of the technical needs of the stockpile. That requirement was drafted by professional staff on the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, one of whom was originally from the Sandia nuclear weapons lab. That the existing stockpile doesn’t need pit production is demonstrated by the fact that none has been scheduled since LANL caught up with 29 W88 pits that were stopped when the Rocky Flats Plant was shut down.
  • At NukeWatch’s request former senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) required an independent study of the lifetimes of pits. The expert conclusion was that plutonium pits last at least a century, more than double government estimates (the oldest pits in the stockpile are now around 45 years old). Moreover, there are some 15,000 existing plutonium pits stored at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, TX.
  • Future plutonium pit production is for a new so called “Interoperable Warhead” that is suppose to function both as a land-based ICBM and sub-launched nuclear warhead. The nuclear weapons labs are pushing this $13 billion make-work project that the Navy doesn’t want. Ironically, new-design pits for the Interoperable Warhead may hurt national security because they cannot be tested in a full-scale nuclear weapons test, or alternatively testing them would have severe international proliferation consequences.
  • Given all this, why expand plutonium pit production when apparently it can’t be done safely and may decrease, not increase, our national security? One strong reason is the huge contractor profits to be had under the one trillion dollar-plus “modernization” of the nuclear weapons stockpile and production complex initiated under Obama, which Trump promises to expand. Far from just “modernization”, existing nuclear weapons are being given new military capabilities despite denials at the highest levels of government.
  • The directors of the Livermore, Sandia and Los Alamos nuclear weapons labs in truth wear two hats, the first as lab directors, the second as presidents of the for-profit limited liability corporations running the labs. This inherent conflict-of-interest that skews U.S. nuclear weapons policy should be brought to an end.

Jay Coghlan, NukeWatch Director, commented, “The New Mexican congressional delegation kowtows to the nuclear weapons industry in our state. I specifically call upon my two senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich to certify within this calendar year that future plutonium pit production at the Los Alamos Lab will be safe, or otherwise end their support for it.”

# # #

The Washington Post article is available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/safety-lapses-undermine-nuclear-warhead-work-at-los-alamos/2017/06/17/87f051ee-510d-11e7-b064-828ba60fbb98_story.html

The article is also being carried in The New Mexican at http://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/repeated-safety-lapses-hobble-lanl-s-work-on-u-s/article_f45dd72a-d6f6-580c-97af-8ffcb9fe8364.html

For more on expanded plutonium pit production please see https://nukewatch.org/facts/nwd/PitProductionFactSheet.pdf

Nuclear safety lapses in plutonium pit production at the Los Alamos Lab

The Washington Post has published the first in a series of articles on nuclear safety lapses in plutonium pit production at the Los Alamos Lab. Plutonium pits are the fissile cores of nuclear weapons that when imploded initiate the nuclear detonation. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/safety-lapses-undermine-nuclear-warhead-work-at-los-alamos/2017/06/17/87f051ee-510d-11e7-b064-828ba60fbb98_story.html

The article is also being carried in The New Mexican at http://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/repeated-safety-lapses-hobble-lanl-s-work-on-u-s/article_f45dd72a-d6f6-580c-97af-8ffcb9fe8364.html

I live in Santa Fe, NM and clearly remember senior DOE officials promising 20 years ago that serious lessons were learned from the Rocky Flats Plant and re-established plutonium pit production at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) would always be safe. Rocky Flats was shut down by a 1989 FBI raid investigating environmental crimes. A special grand jury indicted both DOE officials and the contractor, but its report was sealed by a federal judge at the urging of the local federal attorney general. It was only by sheer luck that a major plutonium fire on Mother’s Day 1969 didn’t contaminate Denver with highly carcinogenic plutonium (google the article The Day We Almost Lost Denver).

Since then the Los Alamos Lab has spent billions of taxpayers’ money on plutonium pit production, but still can’t do it safely. Moreover, as the  article mentions, a radioactive waste barrel improperly prepared by LANL ruptured underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), shutting down that multi-billion dollar facility for nearly three years. Radioactive waste disposal at WIPP will remain constrained for years, raising the question of where future LANL bomb-making wastes will go.

Congress in its infinite wisdom has legislated a requirement that the Los Alamos Lab expand plutonium pit production, regardless of the technical needs of the stockpile. That the existing stockpile doesn’t need pit production is demonstrated by the fact that none is scheduled. Future pit production is for a new so called “Interoperable Warhead” that is suppose to function both as a land-based ICBM and sub-launched nuclear warhead. The nuclear weapons labs are pushing this $13 billion make-work project that the Navy doesn’t want. Ironically, new-design pits for the Interoperable Warhead may hurt national security because they cannot be tested in a full-scale nuclear weapons test, or alternatively testing them would have severe international proliferation consequences.

At my request former senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) required an independent study of the lifetimes of pits. The expert conclusion was that plutonium pits last at least a century, more than double government estimates (the oldest pits in the stockpile are now around 45 years old). Moreover, there are some 15,000 existing plutonium pits stored at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, TX.

Given all this, why expand plutonium pit production when apparently it can’t be done safely and may decrease, not increase, our national security? One strong reason is the huge contractor profits to be had under the one trillion dollar-plus “modernization” of the nuclear weapons stockpile and production complex initiated under Obama, which Trump promises to expand. Far from just “modernization”, existing nuclear weapons are being given new military capabilities despite denials at the highest levels of government.  The directors of the Livermore, Sandia and Los Alamos nuclear weapons labs in truth wear two hats, the first as lab directors, the second as presidents of the for-profit limited liability corporations running the labs. This is inherent conflict-of-interest that skews U.S. nuclear weapons policy should be brought to an end.

The New Mexican congressional delegation kowtows to the nuclear weapons industry in my state. I specifically call upon my two senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich to certify within this calendar year that future plutonium pit production at the Los Alamos Lab will be safe, or otherwise end their support for it.

For more background on plutonium pit production at the Los Alamos Lab see https://nukewatch.org/facts/nwd/PitProductionFactSheet.pdf

National Nuclear Security Administration Gives Green Light For Expanded Plutonium Pit Production at Los Alamos

 For immediate release January 15, 2016

Contacts:       Jay Coghlan, NWNM, 505.989.7342, c. 505.470.3154, jay[at]nukewatch.org

National Nuclear Security Administration Gives Green Light

For Expanded Plutonium Pit Production at Los Alamos

Santa Fe, NM – Today the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent agency commissioned by Congress, posted a weekly report that makes explicit a decision by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to expand plutonium pit production at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). Plutonium pits are the fissile cores or “triggers” of modern two-stage thermonuclear weapons, but they are also atomic weapons in their own right (a plutonium bomb incinerated Nagasaki in August 1945). Plutonium pit production has always been the chokepoint preventing industrial-scale U.S. nuclear weapons production ever since a FBI raid investigating environmental crimes shut down the notorious Rocky Flats Plant near Denver in 1989.

Jay Coghlan, Nuclear Watch Director, commented, “Expanded plutonium pit production at the Los Alamos Lab is really all about future new-design nuclear weapons with new military capabilities produced through so-called Life Extension Programs for existing nuclear weapons.” The relevant case-in-point is that LANL is now tooling up to produce pits for one type of warhead (the W87) to use in an “Interoperable Warhead” that will combine two other warheads (the W78, a land-based ICBM warhead, and the W88, a sub-launched warhead), clearly a radically new design even if as claimed only existing nuclear weapons components are used.

Coghlan further commented, “The real irony is that this Interoperable Warhead has been delayed for at least five years, if not forever, because of its enormous estimated expense and Navy skepticism. Yet this doesn’t keep LANL and the NNSA from spending billions of taxpayer dollars to upgrade existing and build new production facilities for unnecessary and provocative expanded plutonium pit production.”

Specifically, NNSA and LANL seek to raise the administrative limit on plutonium in the existing Radiological Lab (“RLUOB” in the Safety Board report below) from an original 8.4 grams to 400 grams, and proceed with the “Plutonium Modular Approach project.” In 2012, in the face of exploding costs and rising citizen opposition, NNSA dropped its proposal to build a $6.5 billion Walmart-sized “Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project-Nuclear Facility” for expanded plutonium pit production of up to 80 pits per year. There was no technical justification for this expanded production, other than unspecified “Department of Defense requirements.”

These new moves by NNSA and LANL, which will cost around $4 billion before the usual cost overruns, are just another way to achieve their goal of raising plutonium pit production to up to 80 plutonium pits per year. Raising the amount of plutonium in the Radiological Lab will enable LANL to conduct all needed analytical chemistry quality control samples of new pits, as the Safety Board memo says to “primarily support the increased capacity required for larger pit manufacturing rates.” The Plutonium Modular Approach project will be newly constructed underground facilities for hot operations such as a plutonium foundry, likely beginning with two modules at a billion dollars each. It should be noted that proposed major federal actions require the opportunity for public review and comment under the National Environmental Policy Act, which has not been done for what NNSA calls this alternative plutonium strategy. Nevertheless, increased funding for LANL’s plutonium infrastructure will be likely included in the pending federal budget for FY 2017, scheduled to be released Monday February 9.

There is no need for expanded plutonium pit production to maintain the safety and reliability of the existing nuclear weapons stockpile, but it is vital for future new-designs that the nuclear weaponeers want. In fact, the U.S. government is planning to spend a trillion dollars over the next 30 years to “modernize” and completely rebuild its nuclear forces, despite its pledge in the 1970 NonProliferation Treaty to enter into serious negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament.

Background

In 1996 the plutonium pit production mission was formally relocated to LANL, with an approved upper limit of 20 pits per year. NNSA has tried four times since then to expand plutonium pit production. This started with a proposed “Modern Pit Facility” capable of producing up to 450 pits per year, with no justification of why that Cold War-like level of production was needed. In all four cases, in response to successful citizen activism, Congress either rejected or NNSA dropped efforts to expand production, in large part because of a pit life study that New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman required at Nuclear Watch’s request. That 2006 study by independent experts found that plutonium pits last at least 100 years (with no proscribed end date), more than double NNSA’s previous estimates of 45 years.

Nevertheless, NNSA now seeks for the fifth time to expand plutonium pit production beyond the currently approved level of 20 pits per year at LANL. After having produced 30 pits for the W88 sub-launched warhead (which was in production when the Rocky Flats Plant was shut down), there are no current requirements for plutonium pit production to maintain stockpile safety and reliability.

In the meanwhile, funding for cleanup at the Los Alamos Lab is being cut, while nuclear weapons programs that caused the mess to begin with are thriving. As a final irony, these plans to expand plutonium pit production are now being implemented, despite the fact that 1) major operations at LANL’s main plutonium facility have been suspended since June 2013 because of nuclear criticality safety concerns; and 2) the Los Alamos Lab has no place to send its radioactive plutonium pit production wastes ever since it sent a drum that ruptured and closed down the multi-billion dollar Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

Nuclear Watch New Mexico is confident that this latest attempt to expand plutonium pit production will fall apart as well, but only as a result of continuing strong citizen activism.

# # #

•           Relevant excerpt from Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Weekly LANL Report:

http://www.dnfsb.gov/sites/default/files/Board%20Activities/Reports/Site%20Rep%20Weekly%20Reports/Los%20Alamos%20National%20Laboratory/2015/wr_20151218_65.pdf
Los Alamos Report for Week Ending December 18, 2015

MEMORANDUM FOR: S.A. Stokes, Technical Director FROM: R.K. Verhaagen and J.W. Plaue

DNFSB Staff Activity: R. L. Jackson was onsite to plan oversight activities associated with Plutonium Infrastructure Strategy. Accordingly, he met with key project staff and walked down the Plutonium Facility, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) building, and the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building (RLUOB).

Plutonium Infrastructure Strategy: Late last month, the Deputy Secretary of Energy approved a restructuring of the subprojects covered under the CMR Replacement project. There are now four subprojects: (1) RLUOB Equipment Installation, Phase 2; (2) Plutonium Facility Equipment Installation, Phase 1; (3) Plutonium Facility Equipment Installation, Phase 2; and (4) Re- categorizing the RLUOB to Hazard Category 3 with a material-at-risk limit of 400 g plutonium- 239 equivalent. The first two subprojects enable LANL to cease programmatic activities in the CMR by 2019, while the latter two subprojects primarily support the increased capacity required for larger pit manufacturing rates. The memo requests an updated project execution plan within 90 days and indicates approval authority will remain with the DOE Deputy Secretary for subprojects 2–4 and with the NNSA Administrator for subproject 1.

In a separate action, the DOE Deputy Secretary also approved the mission need Critical Decision (CD)-0 for the Plutonium Modular Approach project. This project addresses life extension needs for the existing Plutonium Facility in support of Department of Defense requirements and Congressional Direction. The CD-0 schedule range for project completion is December 2025 to December 2027.

 

•           For an extensive history of successful citizen activism against plutonium pit production see http://nukewatch.org/facts/nwd/Pit-Production-History.pdf

Why Do DOE And LANL Refuse To Do A Pit Production Study?

Why Do DOE And LANL Refuse To Do A Pit Production Study?

A recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report Manufacturing Nuclear Weapon “Pits”: A Decisionmaking Approach for Congress, August 15, 2014 attempts to present the amount of space needed at Los Alamos National Laboratory for the Lab to produce 80 plutonium pits per year. CRS has to do this estimating task because the Lab has never done this calculation.

It is unclear to us why the Lab has yet to do this calculation. The Lab claims to be the “Plutonium Center of Excellence for the Nation”  yet the CRS report explains that no one knows whether existing buildings, without modifications, could manufacture 80 plutonium pits per year (ppy); or if modest upgrades would suffice; or if major construction would be needed to augment the current capacity of about 10 ppy.

A plutonium pit is a nuclear weapon component that is a hollow plutonium shell that is imploded with conventional explosives to create a nuclear explosion that triggers the rest of the weapon. Some argue that the capacity to manufacture new pits may be needed to extend the service life of unneeded weapons, to replace broken pits (which never happens), and to hedge against possible unnamed geopolitical surprises where only more nukes will solve the problem. How many pits that the country actually needs to produce annually is beyond the scope of the CRS report. We believe it is zero.

Along with the unknown space requirements, the Lab also does not know how much Material At Risk (MAR a.k.a. plutonium) would be needed in the building to produce 80 ppy. “…these data have never been calculated rigorously.”

CRS created some charts for this report to show what they believe to be current usage of the Lab’s Plutonium Facility (PF-4). But what this looks like for 80 ppy is still a guess.

We at NukeWatch have been demanding that LANL produce this information — most recently in our 2011 comments on the Draft CMRR-NF Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement

We think two things a probably happening. There is still not a need for 80 pits per year (or any). And if the Lab were to finally do a pit production study, Congress would find out that LANL has enough space now.

The money should be used to clean up the Lab’s legacy Cold War waste.

Plutonium-238 needs should be met through accelerated nuclear weapons dismantlements

Wired Magazine’s alarmist article NASA’s Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration argues that virgin production of plutonium-238 in nuclear reactors is needed, or U.S. space exploration is dead. Instead the nation’s future Pu-238 needs should be met through accelerated nuclear weapons dismantlements and recycling/scrap recovery efforts.

Processing and encapsulation of Pu-238 currently takes place at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico. [Having said that, all plutonium operations at the Lab have been shut down since the end of June because of nuclear criticality safety issues, which is a story in and of itself]. A Pu-238 scrap recovery line capable of recovering 2-8 kilograms per year was slated to start in 2005, but apparently has never become fully operational. In fact, LANL claimed in a 2008 site-wide environmental impact statement that it was capable of recycling/recovering up to 18 kilograms of Pu-238 per year, far more than needed to take care of the nation’s needs.

LANL has a large existing inventory of Pu-238 scrap material. Moreover, the Pantex Plant was supposed to ship radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) from dismantled nuclear weapons to the Lab to harvest Pu-238. That hasn’t happened either, we conjecture because the LANL’s scrap recovery line hasn’t been properly working (or perhaps never really started in the Lab’s troubled Plutonium Facility-4). Indeed, the government estimated that approximately 3,200 RTGs would become available for recycling between 2009 and 2022 through nuclear weapons dismantlements. Significantly, increased dismantlements could also supply sufficient recycled tritium for existing nuclear weapons instead of current military production in civilian reactors, a big nonproliferation no-no. But unfortunately dismantlements at the Pantex Plant are substantially blocked by exorbitant “Life Extension Programs” that extend the service lives of existing nuclear weapons by three decades or more while giving them new military capabilities.

Before the U.S. resumes virgin Pu-238 production, the government should make LANL straighten out its Pu-238 recovery operations. Safely that is, because Pu-238 is a very energetic gamma emitter and therefore very dangerous to handle. But the nation’s future Pu-238 needs should be met through accelerated nuclear weapons dismantlements (instead of Life Extension Programs) and recycling/scrap recovery efforts, not new virgin production in nuclear reactors.

 

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