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FORMER STRATCOM CHIEF, LOS ALAMOS SQUARE OFF OVER PIT PRODUCTION

A suggestion that Los Alamos National Laboratory could easily ramp up pit production to reach Department of Defense requirements for 50 to 80 pits without the nowdeferred Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement- Nuclear Facility came under fire after a Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee hearing this week. Gen. James Cartwright, the former commander of U.S. Strategic Command and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Los Alamos could produce 70-to-80 pits a year at its existing Plutonium Facility, known as PF- 4, by moving to two production shifts, which runs counter to the stance taken by laboratory officials since the Obama Administration deferred construction of the multi-billiondollar CMRR-NF in February. “If you increase the number of shifts it is believed that the floor space would become the constraint and that constraint limits you to somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 [pits] per year in running the plant, so to speak, full up,” Cartwright said in response to questioning from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the ranking member of the panel.

Alexander seemed taken aback by Cartwright’s suggestion because it appeared to contradict the position taken by Los Alamos National Laboratory since the deferment of CMRR-NF. In February, lab Director Charlie McMillan said that without the facility, significant investments in existing infrastructure would only allow the lab to reach an interim capability of 20-to-30 pits per year, and he reiterated that stance in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee in April. The lab has not produced more than 11 pits since reconstituting the ability to produce pits in 2007, and it has said that it needs to move analytical chemistry work out of PF-4 to help increase production. CMRR-NF’s primary mission involves analytical chemistry and materials characterization. “Our position has not changed since Director McMillan’s Senate testimony in April, in which he said (in summary): The deferral of CMRR-NF leaves the nation with no identified capability, in chemical analysis and others areas, to meet the DoD expectation of 50 to 80 pits per year,” Bret Knapp, the head of Los Alamos’ weapons program, said in a statement to NW&M Monitor. “With significant investments, LANL could reach an interim capability level of 20 to 30 pits per year while meeting requirements for safety and security. A recent study delivered to NNSA backs that conclusion. We still need to invest in a long-term capability.”

Lab: Double Shifting ‘Inadequate’

Knapp also suggested that adding more shifts at PF-4 would not enable the lab to substantially increase production. “In the past, we have examined the possibility of running additional shifts to increase production, but we found that that approach was inadequate because of the lack of required analytical chemistry support,” Knapp said. “Increased production requires increased analytical capabilities which we do not have, but would be provided by the CMRR-NF. We are not aware of any new or additional analysis which would change this conclusion, and we look forward to continuing to provide answers to the technical questions informing the nation’s plutonium strategy.” Cartwright, however, suggested that if more floor space could be found in PF-4, production could be drastically increased. “We’ve already invested and bought the tools for a second group to run. It is the floor space issue,” he said, noting that the increase is “not simple … but it can be done in an extreme.”

Cartwright helped lead a Global Zero study that recently suggested the United States could move to a stockpile of 900 total nuclear weapons. The report also supported the Administration’s decision to defer work on CMRR-NF in favor of using a variety of other facilities to help the nation meet its plutonium needs. He conceded that the nation would eventually need to build a new facility to support plutonium work at Los Alamos, but he said the “question is to size it appropriately and to understand exactly why you’re building it under the Stockpile Stewardship side of the equation also, the science part of this. The question becomes, do you need it now, number one, and then number two, do you have existing infrastructure that could accommodate it, or do you need a whole new facility?” —Todd Jacobson


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