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"Forget the Rest" blog

For immediate release 7/2/07

Los Alamos makes plutonium warhead core (“pit”), resuming U.S. warhead manufacture after 18 years


Pit manufacturing program costs exceed $3 billion since 1995 and are expected to easily reach $6-7 B if construction proceeds as planned


Effort adds 1 pit to circa 23,000-pit stockpile known to last 100 years.


Justification, costs questioned; safety and environmental issues unresolved


Controversial pit program not popular with Los Alamos scientists as well as some L.A. civic leaders, NM nonprofits & businesses, City of Santa Fe

Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200

Albuquerque and Los Alamos, NM – Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and its sponsor the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) today celebrate their first new plutonium pit in 18 years.

It is the first certified pit made at LANL in several decades, possibly the first since 1949, when the Hanford Site took over pit production from LANL’s DP Site at TA-21.

The pit is made for the 475 kiloton W88 Trident warhead.  Its manufacture will allow production of entirely “new-made” nuclear warheads at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, TX for the first time since 1989. 

LANL, NNSA, and the Department of Energy (DOE) have sought to bring industrial-scale pit production to LANL since at least 1988, when plans to dramatically augment LANL’s plutonium infrastructure were initiated during the waning days of the Cold War and the Reagan Administration.  These plans have been substantially frustrated and it has taken LANL fully 19 years to produce this first pit.

LANL and NNSA hope to make 10 such pits this fiscal year and, according to congressional sources, to produce “somewhat less than 40” pits over the next few years. 

Since the late 1980s, LANL pit production fortunes have waxed and waned with vicissitudes of executive branch and congressional policies, management difficulties, and local opposition (led by the Los Alamos Study Group since 1992). 

The gradual acquisition of pit production capability and capacity has proceeded under a dozen or so program names.[1]  At least three large construction projects closely related to pit production were begun only to be canceled prior to construction (two projects) or terminated at a smaller scale (one project). 

Some of the latest pit production-related construction projects, led by the flagship Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) project, are controversial in Congress.  House appropriators have repeatedly tried to end the CMRR project, which is now plagued by cost overruns and other problems.  The House would halt work on the quarter-billion-dollar security upgrade that would go with the CMRR as well. 

In 1997 the initiation of pit production was pushed back a decade, i.e. to today, as a result of seismic investigations, in part occasioned by Study Group analysis, publicity, and litigation.  Proposed near-term pit production capacity was downgraded by a factor of five, from 50 pits per year to 10. 

Thus it has not been easy for LANL to make even this first one pit, and there is no assurance that production will long continue.  This year the House Appropriations Committee recommends cutting the LANL pit production budget roughly in half.  In addition, serious infrastructure and safety issues remain unresolved (see http://www.lasg.org/PU_talking_points1.htm).

A cursory addition of pit production program costs over the period from 1995-2007 gives a total cost of at least $3.0 billion in constant 2007 dollars.  If attributable construction costs and pre-1995 costs were included the total would be higher. 

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) estimates that LANL’s nuclear construction projects underway and planned for completion by 2014 now total approximately $2 billion.[2]  Should these construction projects be funded and built, assuming no cost overruns[3] and assuming current levels of operational spending, total expenses for building and starting up a plutonium pit factory at LANL would be at least $6-7 B, not counting ancillary costs for security, waste management operations, and other required expenses.

These costs will be largely taken from by other LANL programs.

This $6+ B is considerably more than the estimated costs of the recently proposed “Modern Pit Facility.”  The final result of it all at LANL, should the work ever be completed, would be a collage of facilities centered on what will be, by 2014, a 36-year-old facility (Building PF-4) that lacks modern safety (e.g. safety-class ventilation) and security features (such as underground or at least bermed construction). 

No thorough audit of past pit production expenses or of future estimated costs has been conducted. 

None but the most cursory public justification for pit production has ever been offered.  This is especially important given that LANL, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, and independent scientists now know that existing pits, which number approximately 23,000, will last for at least a century from their original manufacture. 

Many published analyses of these and related issues are available from the Los Alamos Study Group at www.lasg.org.  Most of the policy issues are briefly summarized at http://www.lasg.org/pit_prod_flyer.htm and at http://www.lasg.org/PU_talking_points1.htm; the latter discussion includes a referenced discussion of safety issues. 

A compendium of press articles on the subject is available at http://www.lasg.org/Pit_Prod.htm.

The implications of these issues for New Mexico, together with a sketch of a normative program for LANL, can be found at http://www.lasg.org/NM_labs_future.pdf (4.2 M). 

For the past three years in particular the Study Group has led a statewide campaign against pit production.  A list of participating organizations, businesses, and local governments can be found at http://www.lasg.org/campaigns/CallEndorsers.htm.  Thousands of individuals, including Congressman Tom Udall’s wife Jill Cooper Udall and Dr. Joseph Martz, head of the LANL Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, have endorsed The Call for Nuclear Disarmament

A number of LANL scientists have spoken to us opposing pit production on institutional grounds.  One particularly well-connected senior scientist has told us he is sure a majority of LANL scientists oppose this mission. 

The recent challenger for the Third NM Congressional District seat, Ron Dolan, a Republican and LANL manager, has publicly opposed pit production at LANL. 

Nona Bowman, a Republican member of the Los Alamos County Council, has also opposed pit production at LANL on more than one occasion.  She recently said, "I have expressed in several public council meetings my concern on the major mission of the laboratory centered on weapon research led by a major pit manufacturing facility.  I see that future for the laboratory and New Mexico to be that of Rocky Flats.”[4]

There has been as yet no in-depth treatment of these subjects in the American news media, even in New Mexico, a state whose economy, society, and politics are already being affected by the new LANL mission. 

Study Group director Greg Mello: “U.S. national security and our standing in the world would be substantially improved if the pit being celebrated today were simply taken apart.  There are hundreds of surplus warheads for the Trident system, and more than a thousand are slated for retirement.  Given these facts alone, not to mention many others, today’s celebration is surely one of the most bizarre in recent LANL memory.”

“We hope that groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility and Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, who so far have been unwilling to join common efforts in New Mexico and nationally to oppose pit production at LANL and at crucial times have even promoted LANL pit production in Washington, are now willing to wholeheartedly oppose it.  If so then today’s pit commemoration could be a day of modest celebration for nuclear opposition in New Mexico as well.”

***ENDS***


[1] Most are straightforward but some are obscure, like “non-nuclear reconfiguration” and “transition manufacturing and safety equipment.”

[2] DNFSB LANL Weekly Site Report, August 25, 2006, http://www.dnfsb.gov/pub_docs/lanl/wr_20060825_la.pdf.

[3] Since that August 2006 estimate, NNSA has identified approximately $700 million in expected cost overruns in a single project, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Facility.  Given the serious issues as yet unresolved in that project, we believe further cost overruns in that project can be expected.

[4] Carol Clark, “Civic leaders speak out,” Los Alamos Monitor, June 27, 2007, http://www.lamonitor.com/articles/2007/06/27/headline_news/news03.txt.


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