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October 28, 2015

Bulletin 209: Help wanted; NNSA infrastructure plans presume a new Cold War

  • Help wanted!
  • NNSA infrastructure plans presume new Cold War – and will fail (part I)

Dear friends and colleagues –

The other day Trish and I were talking to an activist who is getting up in years.  We emphasized the need for fresh talent.  “But how is that talent to be supported?” he asked.

The best, and really the only, answer is: “By us,” one way or another.  More simply, we are the answer.  By “we” I mean first and foremost ourselves – the Study Group.

We hope you will be answers also – in your own work, by recruiting others, or by supporting this and other organizations financially (as many of you already do, so generously).

Our friend thought faith communities were too strapped to support activists.  That’s a common view.  I am not sure he, and the others we know who have said the same thing, understand the gravity of our converging crises.  Without belaboring the point, our friend assumed that the habits of life in these faith communities (and by implication those habits in other civil society organizations as well), could and would go on as usual.  In effect he assumed that he, and we all, are helpless to change very much.

And that is exactly how most people think.  They are looking from the outside.  For them there is no hope, just hesitation.  Partly this hesitation is sound, because the received modalities of liberal activism have failed and will fail.

We speak a very different language here.  We are looking for people who want to work, for skilled researchers and communicators, and interns who want to learn.  If you have commitment, skills, energy, and are truly ready to work and work with us, consider doing so.

We have plenty of critically important work for mature volunteers as well.  You don’t have to understand the issues.  You may find the camaraderie pleasant.  We know how to have a good time.

Where there is commitment we can provide, or we can find, enough material support.  Don’t expect a lot.

As the above story illustrates, a lot of our readers aren’t really taking the climate situation, the war situation, the energy situation, the human security situation, seriously enough.  As James Hansen said the other day about climate change, people don’t really get it.  Too many of people think the American Way of Life is going to continue.  It is ending right now, before our eyes, a process well under way.

Or else, and perhaps unconsciously, people have given up.  Well, don’t.  Grief is healthy but depression is optional.  Jung asked, “Does the individual know that he is the makeweight that tips the scales?”  It’s a good question, and it begs a few good answers.  Are you one of them?

Another theme in that conversation was how busy people are.  They go to this meeting and that one.  They go to Lannan lectures.  Why in the world do people do all that?  What good is it?

Finally, Marge Piercy’s “To Be of Use” comes to mind.  Is it overused – a cliché?  Perhaps not.

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

NNSA infrastructure plans presume a new Cold War, and will fail (part I)

This is a big claim, which needs a big proof.  Let’s just take a little piece for now – the pit production piece, located at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

I will explain why we think such plans will fail next time.

As discussed many times in these Bulletins (see for example 205, 194, 191, and their included chains of links) and on our web site (e.g. in documents and analyses here, here, here, and here), the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) plans for “plutonium sustainment,” and centrally for warhead core (“pit”) production, involve billions of dollars in new infrastructure, plus a continuing stream of hundreds of millions in operating expenses annually.

(We have not recently attempted to quantify the total expense to date or the total, site-wide, projected capital and life-cycle cost of this effort, which involves large new waste-handling facilities, electrical substations, non-nuclear facilities, new offices, security upgrades, and so on.  Some of these costs are needed to keep the doors open and the lights on; others are capacity-dependent.)

The now-revived Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) construction line item, sans the huge, cancelled CMRR Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), is still expected to cost $2.9 billion (B), despite the fact that all the rest of the original line item – about 10% of the 2011 total – has been completed.  The revival consists of two new subprojects under what has become something of a “catch-all” line item.

This $2.9 B does not include the two proposed underground processing “modules,” the very preliminary cost of which is estimated to be $2.2 B.  We expect to see that estimated cost added to this or another line item later, perhaps this coming February.  The total project cost (TPC) of the CMRR line item plus the roughly-estimated cost of two modules is thus now $5.3 B.  (This is $1 B more than last year at this time.)  It does not include the undefined and ever-expanding cost of safety and capacity upgrades to the existing plutonium facility, PF-4.  Again, this cost also does not include related supporting infrastructure.

The main driver for these projects is a congressional requirement in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (P.L. 113-66) for NNSA to produce not less than 10 “war reserve” pits for the stockpile in FY2024, 30 in each of FY2025 and FY2026, and to demonstrate (for at least 90 days) a capacity to produce 80 pits/year in FY2027, which can be slipped for up to 2 years with appropriate justification (FY2016 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan [SSMP], p. A-9).

NNSA states that a capacity of 30 pits/yr is achievable without new infrastructure.

Without the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR‐NF) or an alternative, a production capability of 30 pits per year is achievable through several approaches that are not mutually exclusive, including additional shift work, additional use of space in PF‐4 at LANL, and use of offsite laboratories that leverage resources outside the Plutonium Sustainment Program. (FY16 SSMP, p. 2-34)

NNSA believes that the statutory “80 pits/yr” is not, however, attainable without “at least one if not two” underground processing modules, as Deputy Administrator Madelyn Creedon told Trish and I last week.  We differ from that conclusion, based in part on the extensive analysis of alternatives provided by the Congressional Research Service (we provide a searchable compendium here).  We will return to the infrastructure vs. capacity question another time, but in the meantime why are any new pits needed at all, within current planning and budgeting horizons?

The short answer is, they aren’t.  Our 2010 conclusions on this matter, most of which have not materially changed, are found in “U.S. Plutonium ‘Pit’ Production: Additional Facilities, Production, Restart are Unnecessary, Costly, and Provocative” which was posted by NNSA here and by us here (in case NNSA takes down their copy).

Since 2010, conclusions about plutonium aging in pits have only become stronger (see Study Group comments on LANL letter to Congress in response to the Study Group's Dec 6 press release, Dec 12, 2012).  (Pit aging, as opposed to plutonium aging, is another matter, which has not been fully elucidated in the unclassified literature.)

Thanks, however, to the indefatigable efforts of Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA), we need not prove our point.  NNSA has done so.  The unclassified chart provided to Rep. Garamendi by the Department of Energy (DOE) clarifies that the only pit production planned for the stockpile is that needed for the first Interoperable Warhead (IW-1), with a First Production Unit (FPU) of 2030, and for IW-3, with an FPU in 2041.  All other current and proposed warhead modernization plans involve pit reuse in the same warhead type, or for IW-2 in 2034, pit reuse “TBD.”

Pit production for an FPUs past 2030, even considering possible new infrastructure, is pretty far from current planning horizons.  These are multibillion-dollar decisions and if they can just well wait a few years, during which time pertinent new information will certainly become available and new policy considerations will certainly arise, it is prudent to wait.

Please thank Rep. Garamendi (DC office: 202-225-1880) for his efforts.

So “IW-1” is the sole technical driver (as opposed to “geopolitical” driver – see Bulletin 208) of pit production for the foreseeable future, and hence of pit production infrastructure.

IW-1 is supposed to replace both the W78 ICBM warhead and the W88 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warhead.  It will be a “W87-like” warhead that uses a “W87-like” pit, which does not require new-pit manufacturing.

The Navy does not need or want IW-1 for the foreseeable future, since the 400 or so extant W88s are scheduled to be upgraded starting in late 2020 and provided with new conventional high explosives (CHE), enabling an extended service life extending until the late 2030s.  (See “Nuclear Weapons Council Debating Expanding Scope of W88 Alt 370, Senior Navy Admiral Says; Refreshing High Explosive in Warhead Under Consideration,” Todd Jacobson, Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor, 6/20/2014).  The Nuclear Weapons Council made the decision to refresh the CHE in December of 2014 (see the FY2016 SSMP, p. 2-21).  The IW-1 program was accordingly mothballed in FY2014 (Ibid, p. 2-26) and its FPU delayed 5 years to the present 2030.  The program remains alive today in name only; several close observers of the program serving in government say it is all but dead, especially since the commonality of the Air Force and Navy versions of the warhead has decreased; separate fuzing systems are now envisioned (Ibid, p. 8-19).

The “IW-1” of 2030 that remains is a replacement for aging W78 Minuteman III ICBM warheads only.  There are currently 450 Minuteman III missiles; current plans call for 50 of these to be sequestered in a storage facility to meet overall New START requirements for deployed strategic warheads (see the “United States” chapter in Assuring Destruction Forever).  There are however a total of roughly 1,336 ICBM warheads available (including both deployed and reserve; about 789 W78s and 547 W87s in all; see p. 19 here).  Each missile can carry up to three warheads but they currently carry only one.  The extra warheads are in a “war reserve,” or “upload hedge,” available for reloading onto missiles in the event of a new Cold War.  (Re-MIRVing those missiles makes them a more attractive target in a nuclear warfighting scenario, which is one reason why they are not MIRVed today.)

With only (roughly) 547 W87 warheads, there are plenty to load 400 or 450 missiles with a single warhead even if all W78s were retired, but not enough to also provide a “war reserve” hedge.

Leaving aside any full description of the layers of madness in this way of thinking, the simple conclusion I would like to leave you with is this: the planned pit production in the 2020s, and the big infrastructure investments planned to provide the necessary capacity on that schedule which affect us today, are really all about the "upload hedge" for ICBMs.  They aim to provide breakout capacity from New START and are not even about deployed warheads – even for the most senseless and dangerous component of the nuclear triad, ICBMs.

Basically, the scale and schedule of investment in pit production infrastructure assumes and requires a new Cold War to justify it.

That’s it for now – more next time.

Very best wishes,

Greg Mello, for the Study Group


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