Plutonium pits are the radioactive cores or “triggers” of nuclear weapons. Their production has always been a chokepoint of resumed industrial-scale U.S. nuclear weapons production ever since a 1989 FBI raid investigating environmental crimes shut down the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver. In 1997 the mission of plutonium pit production was officially transferred to its birthplace, the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in northern New Mexico, but officially capped at not more than 20 pits per year. However, in 2015 Congress required expanded pit production by 2030 whether or not the existing nuclear weapons stockpile actually needs it. This will support new military capabilities for nuclear weapons and their potential use.
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Andy Stiny | The Santa Fe New Mexican
Three nuclear watchdog groups across the U.S., including Santa Fe-based Nuclear Watch New Mexico, are accusing the National Nuclear Security Administration of creating a plan to increase production of plutonium bomb cores in violation of an environmental law.
“In a letter to the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee last month, the Project On Government Oversight was joined by Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Savannah River Site Watch in requesting justification for this expanded capacity. NNSA has over 14,000 plutonium cores already constructed and in storage, many of them specifically designated for potential reuse in new nuclear weapons as part of a ‘strategic reserve.’
If the interoperable warhead is not needed or wanted by the Defense Department, then new pit production is not needed, and the MOX facility can be terminated once and for all. If it is, Congress should ensure that any path forward will be appropriately sized and scoped to meet that mission need. Either way, if all of these interlocking parts are not matched up as part of an overall strategy then there’s only going to be more waste, fraud, and abuse and it is the average American taxpayer who will pay the price.”
-Lydia Dennett, POGO investigator See her full report at POGO)
“To achieve DoD’s 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.”
-Joint Statement from Ellen M. Lord and Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty on Recapitalization of Plutonium Pit Production
NB: Lisa Gordon-Hagerty is the Administrator of the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration); Ellen Lord is a DOD Under-secretary and Chair of the Nuclear Weapons Council (Gordon-Hagerty is also an NWC member).
The National Nuclear Security Administration’s own documents have explicitly stated that expanded pit production would have no significant positive effect on job creation and the regional economy of northern New Mexico. Nuclear Watch argues that expanded plutonium pit production could actually have negative effect if it blocks other economic alternatives such as comprehensive cleanup, which could be the real job producer. Moreover, given LANL’s poor safety and environmental record, expanded plutonium pit production could have a seriously negative economic impact on northern New Mexico in the event of any major accidents.
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.
This is the unsung story of successful citizen activism against repeated government attempts to expand the production of plutonium pit cores, which has always been the choke point of resumed U.S. nuclear weapons production. This history is a critical part of the march toward a future world free of nuclear weapons.
“Santa Fe, NM & Columbia, SC. Two 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.”
There is no explanation why the Department of Defense requires at least 80 pits per year and no justification to the American taxpayer why the enormous expense of expanded production is necessary.
NNSA did not mention that up to 15,000 “excess” pits are already stored at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, TX, with up to another 5,000 in “strategic reserve.” The agency did not explain why new production is needed given that an immense inventory of already existing plutonium pits. (In 2006 independent experts found that pits last a least a century. Plutonium pits in the existing stockpile now average around 40 years old.)
NNSA did not explain how to dispose of all of that plutonium, given that the MOX program is an abysmal failure. Nor is it made clear where future plutonium wastes from expanded pit production will go since operations at the troubled Waste Isolation Pilot Plant are already constrained from a ruptured radioactive waste barrel, and its capacity is already overcommitted to existing radioactive wastes.
“NNSA should begin a nation-wide review of plutonium pit production, why it’s needed, and what it will cost the American taxpayer in financial, safety and environmental risks. These are all things that the public should know.”
– Jay Coghlan, Director, Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
Jay Coghlan, Executive Director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, commenting on the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Nuclear Facility in the plutonium production complex at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Scott Kovac, Operations and Research Director, Nuclear Watch New Mexico debunking the argument that the economic impact of the proposed new nuclear facility at Los Alamos is an efficient use of $6 billion.