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"Forget the Rest" blog

For immediate release June 2, 2008 

GAO: NNSA has changing, contradictory plutonium warhead core ("pit") production goals and has "low-balled" pit production costs

LANL production cannot be increased for foreseeable future, GAO says

Valuable study affirms and extends prior reports, including ours, and will be used in FY09 markups, expected this month

Albuquerque -- Today the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a landmark study of plutonium warhead core ("pit") production goals, costs, current status, and prospects.  The study was requested by the Chair and Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, Rep. Peter Visclosky and Rep. David Hobson, respectively.  Dated May 23, it is arriving just as this Subcommittee and the corresponding Senate Appropriations subcommittee prepare their markups of the President's budget request. 

It is safe to say that this report will influence those markups, the negotiations that follow later this year and early next year, and the long-running debate about pit production after that. 

In the U.S., pit production occurs only Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).  With exceptions not currently applicable, pit production is necessary to produce new warheads.  Making pits is the single most expensive and difficult aspect of making nuclear weapons and is the pivotal, rate-limiting step.  All current U.S. nuclear weapons contain plutonium pits. 

The U.S. currently possesses at least 24,000 pits, roughly 10,000 of which are in nuclear weapons.  The remaining 14,000 or more are stored at the Pantex nuclear weapons plant near Amarillo. 

As the JASON community reported to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), there is a firm technical consensus that all U.S. pits will last at least 85 years from manufacture and quite possibly longer -- possibly much longer.  Since most if not all pits to be retained in the stockpile were produced since 1980, existing pits do not need replacement until 2065 or later, assuming the warhead or bomb in question is not retired first. 

The key findings in this report are:

  • NNSA has not had consistent pit production goals -- not consistent over time and not consistent at the same time.  Since 2002, internally-stated goals have sometimes differed from externally-stated goals.  This is true for pits produced overall and for the sub-category of "war-reserve" pits that may become nuclear warheads.

  • NNSA has underestimated the costs of making and certifying pits.  GAO does not attempt to fully estimate these costs but indicates some of the elements its auditors believe should be included, arriving at a ten-year cost of roughly $6 billion.  (These are some of the same cost elements, by the way, that the Study Group has previously suggested should be included.  GAO does not attempt to reconstruct the full history of pit production costs or estimates; any full accounting would begin farther back in time, in the early 1990s.)

  • GAO identifies 7 construction projects that directly support pit production, the same list as ours (Table 1 here, pdf) with the addition of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) Upgrades Project, which is already completed.  A recent Santa Fe New Mexican article badly misconstrued the purpose of the CMR Replacement (CMRR) project, which is quite understandable given the confusing, shall we say, statements provided by key LANL employees regarding this project.

  • GAO has found that LANL will not be able to [safely] increase its pit manufacturing capacity for the "foreseeable future," as the Study Group has also concluded on a number of occasions, for example here.

  • GAO's findings on the lack of clear production requirements echo some of those of the White House late last year in its guidance to NNSA on preparation of the FY2009 budget request (emphasis added). 

    NNSA Funding for Nuclear Weapons’ Cores:  The DOE/NNSA is requesting funding in FY 2009 for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project.  This facility will be used to manufacture the central core of nuclear weapons, known as the "pit."  The DOE/NNSA has assumed a future production rate of 50 – 80 pits per year at Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, consistent with their preferred alternative for complex transformation.  Currently there is no formal agreement between DOE and DOD on production requirements, and thus no firm basis for setting a facility production capacity requirement. This requirement is the major cost driver for the facility.

    Therefore, DOD and DOE should collaborate on an analysis that determines what level of production will be sufficient to meet requirements for pit replacement in the stockpile, whether for existing designs or for the future Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW).  This analysis should also clarify the number of RRW variants that will be produced.  DOD and DOE should provide this analysis to OMB not later than July 2008.

    Study Group director Greg Mello: "What leaps out of these pages is great uncertainty among senior officials about pit production.  There are no clear answers as to when NNSA believes production should occur, how many pits NNSA believes are needed (let alone how many pits DoD has tasked NNSA to make, if any), what kinds of pits are "needed," and what all this may cost.

    "GAO was not asked to analyze whether pit production is needed for the foreseeable future.  This is the question Congress must now ask. 

    "It is abundantly clear to all parties that the U.S. does not need to make pits to support its entire nuclear arsenal indefinitely.  No one intends to support that many weapons anyway.  It may well be that the U.S. arsenal shrinks to 10% of its current size in the near future; even the current President envisions an almost 50% reduction by 2012.  Proceeding with a multi-billion dollar plan in the absence of answers to very basic questions of for what, when, at what scale, and at what cost is imprudent at best.  It also compromises U.S. security because of the proliferation costs that must be paid for re-starting warhead production. 

    "Prior to these questions, NNSA and Congress must come to grips with the fact that the U.S. has a binding legal obligation to complete the nuclear disarmament process.  Even those who discount treaties must acknowledge the political realities involved.  Many people, including the Los Alamos Study Group, believe we also have a moral obligation to lead the world toward nuclear abolition.  Abolition is consistently the most popular policy in U.S. polls.  It is an idea upon which a variety of former officials and current presidential candidates have seen fit to expound, no doubt with varying degrees of sincerity.
    "Before talking about pit production, nuclear disarmament needs to be on the table, front and center.  The totally gratuitous, wasteful production of additional plutonium pits, beyond all those we already have, needs to be taken off the table.  This excellent report is a good start."


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