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Key resources: nuclear weapons ban, plutonium pit production

December 5, 2017 

Bulletin 238: Normative plutonium policies as we see them – a quick sketch

Dear friends and colleagues –

As details of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) for plutonium warhead core (“pit”) production slowly emerge, it seems important to lay down a marker to show where we, the Los Alamos Study Group, stand in what could otherwise be a confusing welter of news stories and obscure-to-most, partially redacted documents (see: Bulletin 237: NNSA doubts LANL pit production…12/4/2017).

Here we informally draw together some of the main threads in a broad policy sketch, presented as briefly and broadly as possible, without details or references. These are our views at this time. We’ve tried to make them as informed as possible within limits set by classification.

In the policies below, we favor budgetary responsibility, good management, and in some places (which are labeled) our nuclear disarmament agenda applies.

We certainly do not favor nuclear rearmament, a program for which may be revealed next month in the Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). (The NPR is all-but-complete and is slated to be given to the President for final review in 10 days.)

Costly and provocative decisions to build new nuclear production facilities, decisions which truly can be deferred for 5, 10, or 15 years with no cost to the nuclear stockpile and which carry high management risk as well, should be deferred, in our view. Grandiosity seems to partner with neglect in the warhead complex. One accompanies the other.

Here are our proposed plutonium policies, in broad strokes:

  • There is no need for any pit production for the stockpile (i.e. of “war reserve,” WR, pits) for many years, at least until the 2030s. How many years production can be deferred after 2030 without some disarmament depends on factors we do not entirely know.
  • We also do not believe there is a need to create, at great expense (more than $3 billion beyond what has been spent already), a pit production capacity of 30 ppy (i.e. ~50 ppy with two shifts, plus a parallel pit reuse capacity) at LANL, let alone to use this new-pit capacity to build stockpile (WR) pits.
  • Still less do we see any need to construct a de novo pit production capacity at any other site, such as the Savannah River Site (SRS).
  • We believe the partially-constructed Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at SRS should be abandoned or mothballed, rather than re-purposed for pit production or the disposition of surplus pits.
  • The only disposition path that makes any sense to us for the roughly 34 metric tons of surplus pits currently in storage is “sterilization” (permanently ruining the pits without opening them using physical, mechanical, or chemical methods) followed by direct disposal in suitable containers. This could be done cheaply and quickly.
  • We see no great problem with storing pits at Pantex. We do not see any need for the proposed Material Staging Facility (MSF) there. Drainage issues can be resolved with backhoe technology. A new plutonium palace is not needed. Capacity issues can be resolved in other ways.
  • We would like PF-4 to be made safer. Failure to fund what we regard as essential safety improvements and deferred maintenance, and to institute improved housekeeping practices, are perennial concerns of ours. There are ample funds to do this in the plutonium sustainment budget.
  • There is no solid excuse to remain in the dangerous Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) Building at LANL. We do not believe the budget justifications that call for $2 billion in appropriations to move the few remaining people and tasks out of that building. Some schedule-constraining tasks need not be done at all.
  • There is certainly no need to build the ($1-2 billion?) MaRIE nuclear weapons science research facility at LANL, which is already being discussed as a “consolation prize” to LANL for not building underground plutonium factory modules, should that outcome come to pass.
  • Relevant to this, we believe LANL (and LLNL) could and should be downsized by about 50% independent of stockpile size and composition. Approximately one-half of their budgets are surplus to requirements.
  • As of now, all DOE plutonium programs are interrelated. Therefore prior to any major decisions involving physical construction for pit production, surplus plutonium disposition, or plutonium storage, a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) should be conducted to illuminate the interlocking alternatives on a nationwide basis. Where site-wide environmental impact statements (SWEISs) are more than 10 years old, these should be brought up date, encompassing the plutonium alternatives contemplated for each site within site-specific environmental considerations.
  • Following this PEIS and SWEISs, which could be contemporaneous, project-specific EISs must be written for major projects with significant environmental impacts prior to any decision to proceed.
  • There is no need for, or benefit from, Interoperable Warheads (IWs). IW-1 is being actively opposed by the Navy. The Air Force may also be cool to it. It may not be certifiable, including or especially as regards accuracy. For Air Force ICBMs (now re-branded as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, GBSD) a much simpler W78 Life Extension Program (LEP), without new pits, would be completely adequate.
  • No new kinds of warheads or bombs are needed or wanted. The IW-1 is one example of a gratuitous program with huge implications for infrastructure. (This recommendation has nothing to do with disarmament.)
  • Contra current policy, GBSD does not need upload capacity, i.e. the ability to return to Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) loading, which would violate New START or any similar subsequent treaty if actually carried out and would be destabilizing and provocative in any context. This policy is the mildest sort of disarmament, and wouldn’t remove any missiles or warheads from deployment. It would however make a significant difference in proposed warhead production quantities and the infrastructure required. Fewer warheads needed also means more warheads (and pits) are available as backups. There are plenty of extra pits today (see p. 19 in "U.S. Plutonium 'Pit' Production: Additional Facilities, Production Restart are Unnecessary, Costly and Provocative," Mar 2, 2010).
  • In 2013, there was a consensus across government that deployed nuclear weapons could be reduced by one-third without impairing US security under all conceivable scenarios. It didn't happen. Such a reduction, if genuine and not just re-labeling, would affect future production quantities and hence infrastructure requirements. This is a substantive disarmament step that could be taken without goring too many sacred cows, in our view.
  • For the sake of completion in this sketch, we would also, in rough order of desirability:
    • Eliminate GBSD, a weapon system that makes the world and US less secure.
    • Cancel the proposed Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) weapon, a stealthy new cruise missile that would harm, not help, US security. (LRSO does not need new pits, in any case.)
    • Eliminate all nuclear gravity bombs. (These do not need new pits for decades either.)
    • This would leave the Air Force without a nuclear mission. Good riddance.
    • In our view all these steps could be done unilaterally without the slightest risk and with tremendous benefits to US security. What reciprocal disarmament might be done by Russia and others would be a bonus.
    • Retire the oldest Ohio-class submarines and downsize the proposed Columbia-class fleet, allowing slower development while engaging with Russia in deeper nuclear arms reductions.

That's it for now.

Best wishes to all and see some of you on Sunday,

Greg and Trish, for the Study Group

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