Plutonium pit production is a chokepoint of resumed U.S. nuclear weapons production. Citizens have defeated four past government attempts to expand pit production. Now Trump promises to increase military spending, and Congress has already required expanded pit production at the Los Alamos Lab regardless of the technical needs of the stockpile. This will enable the continuing evolution of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile with new military capabilities. Trump’s pending federal budget will likely fund new and upgraded plutonium facilities expected to be operational for at least the next half-century. But expanded plutonium pit production faces serious hurdles, including typical cost overruns, nuclear criticality safety issues, waste treatment problems, legally required public review and citizen opposition.
Production of plutonium pits, the grapefruit-sized fissile cores of nuclear weapons, has always been a chokepoint of resumed U.S. nuclear weapons production ever since the FBI shut down the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver while investigating environmental crimes. In 1997 the mission of plutonium pit production was officially transferred to its birthplace, the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in northern New Mexico, where it remains officially capped at not more than 20 stockpile pits per year. Since then, citizen activists have stopped the Department of Energy’s semi-autonomous nuclear weapons agency, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), in each of its past four attempts to expand pit production.
But now we are probably facing our most serious threat, with NNSA again seeking to expand plutonium pit production. Ironically there is no need to produce pits for the existing nuclear weapons stockpile, and none are currently scheduled. Nevertheless, LANL is now tooling up to produce new pits for a so-called Interoperable Warhead designed for both land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, despite the fact that the Navy doesn’t support it and the Obama Administration delayed it for five years.
The U.S. government has offered no justification for the exorbitant expense and environmental and safety risks associated with expanded production, other than to say that it is an undisclosed military requirement. But expanded plutonium pit production will enable the ongoing evolution of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, with “Life Extension Programs” giving existing nuclear weapons new military capabilities despite denials at the highest levels of government.
NNSA’s pending fiscal year 2018 budget will likely include new and upgraded plutonium facilities at LANL that will be operational for at least the next half-century, obstructing global progress towards a future world free of nuclear weapons. This is now exacerbated by President Trump’s announced military buildup and his general assertion that the U.S. must expand its nuclear weapons capabilities But long before Trump came to power, Congress had already required expanded pit production in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.
That law, drafted by the neoconservative Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, made a point of delinking expanded production from the actual needs of the stockpile. That is convenient for them, given that a 2006 pit lifetime study initiated by ex-Senator Jeff Bingaman at Nuclear Watch’s request found that pits last at least 85 years, in contrast to the 45 years previously claimed by the government.
The law stipulated that “timelines for creating certain capacities for production of plutonium pits and other nuclear weapons components must be driven by the requirement to hedge against technical and geopolitical risk and not solely by the requirements of life extension programs [for existing nuclear weapons],” which gives expanded plutonium pit production a blank check. While deeming it a “national security priority”, Congress required the Los Alamos Lab to “demonstrate the capability to produce war reserve plutonium pits at a rate sufficient to produce 80 pits per year” by 2027.
Nevertheless, it won’t be easy for the Los Alamos Lab to expand plutonium pit production, given citizen opposition, legal requirements, and problems of its own making, arguably due to its own incompetence. For starters, LANL’s main plutonium facility has been shut down since June 2013 because of chronic nuclear criticality safety concerns and only recently has restarted major operations without all problems being fixed.
Further, an improperly prepared radioactive waste barrel from LANL ruptured at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), contaminating 21 workers and shutting down the only repository for plutonium wastes from pit production (it has only recently restarted limited operations). In addition, the WIPP debacle prompted the federal government to open the LANL management contract up for bid, which will inevitably cause turbulence and uncertainty at the Lab. Finally, the federal National Environmental Policy Act requires meaningful environmental review of any expansion of plutonium pit production at LANL, which could seriously delay it and/or offer opportunities for civil litigation.