Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said he doubted the lab has the “expertise and competence” to produce 80 plutonium pits, “but they’re going to eat up taxpayers’ money.” Coghlan said he’s also concerned about defense leaders refusing to use the thousands of pits stockpiled during the Cold War and instead favoring new, heavily modified pits. That raises the question of whether the Pentagon might resume nuclear testing on these untried cores instead of computer simulations.
Los Alamos National Laboratory should be able to produce 80 plutonium pits to meet surges in demand, not just the official goal of 30 pits a year, according to a proposed update to the lab’s last sitewide analysis.
Defense plans call for the lab to produce 30 pits — the grapefruit-sized explosive centers in nuclear warheads — in 2026 and the Savannah River Site to manufacture 50 in 2030.
Various documents allude to creating “surge capacity” or the ability to go beyond the normal volume for short periods, but the draft supplement to the lab’s 2008 sitewide review is the first to make 80 pits the goal for production surges.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, which is taking public comments on the draft supplement until April 24, cautioned against making too much of the numbers.
“Just because we have the capability to do 80 pits doesn’t mean we will be doing 80,” Chiri said. “It’s impossible to predict what will happen in 10 years.”
The 80-pit surge capacity is based on the 2008 study mentioning 80 pits per year as the limit of what the lab could produce, Chiri said. The Savannah River Site also would have some surge capacity, she added.
Critics have expressed doubt about the lab, with a history of safety problems at its aging plutonium facility, being able to produce even 30 nuclear cores.
“They don’t need to do 80 and can’t possibly do 80,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group. “What is the most likely scenario is LANL’s great ambitions will collide with intractable problems — and calls for more and more money to fix the problems.”
Mello said he thinks part of the reason the agency wants the lab able to make 80 pits is in the event the Savannah River Site’s pit plant doesn’t work out as planned.
Defense officials say the new pits are needed to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal to better protect the U.S. against Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and rogue states that are improving their weaponry. The pits would arm two new warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles — one type that’s land-based and the other launched from submarines.
New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall has said he would prefer the lab be the sole pit producer, so the state doesn’t have to take the radioactive waste generated at Savannah River without the job creation and other economic benefits. However, Udall has never made clear whether he wanted the lab to crank out 80 pits.
Neither Udall nor Sen. Martin Heinrich, who also supports pit production at LANL, responded to questions emailed to their offices about what they deemed a realistic volume.
Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said he doubted the lab has the “expertise and competence” to produce 80 plutonium pits.
“But they’re going to eat up taxpayers’ money,” Coghlan said.
The push to ramp up LANL’s pit production to such a high level is all the more reason the Energy Department should do a new sitewide environmental analysis, Coghlan said. If the agency uses both LANL and Savannah River, it should do a full, “programmatic” study that looks at the impacts from two or more sites, he said.
The Energy Department contends a supplemental statement for LANL is enough because the environmental impacts of pit production are largely the same now as 12 years ago.
Coghlan said he’s also concerned about defense leaders refusing to use the thousands of pits stockpiled during the Cold War and instead favoring new, heavily modified pits. That raises the question of whether the Pentagon might resume nuclear testing on these untried cores instead of computer simulations, Coghlan said.
Another watchdog group thinks there’s a good chance the lab could wind up as the sole pit producer, or at least the primary site.
The federal government has yet to come up with a solid plan on how it will convert Savannah River’s stalled mixed-oxide plant to a pit factory, said Tom Clements, executive director of SRS Watch.
While spending almost $8 billion to build the failed mixed-oxide facility, the Energy Department installed faulty central-air systems, piping and structures, which all would have to be overhauled, Clements said.
And unlike LANL, Savannah River has no experience producing nuclear cores, he said.
“I’ve seen no evidence they can pull it off,” Clements said.