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Analysis offers options for plutonium pit production
By Staci Matlock
Los Alamos National Laboratory is the only place making plutonium pits for nuclear warheads, and the lab has spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars trying to figure out a way to produce more for the U.S. Department of Defense.
A new analysis by the Congressional Research Service says there are several cheaper options available than building new billion-dollar underground plutonium production facilities.
“Several options have the potential to produce 80 pits per year and permit other plutonium activities at relatively modest cost, in a relatively short time, with no new buildings and with minimal environmental impact,” said the report by Jonathan E. Medalia, specialist in nuclear weapons policy for the Congressional Research Service.
One option is to modify and use the lab’s existing facilities. Another, likely to make lab officials unhappy, is to move pit production to another lab, such as Lawrence Livermore in Livermore, Calif., or Savannah River, near Aiken, S.C. A third possibility is to build smaller concrete modules for pit production.
LANL referred all questions to the National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency of the Department of Energy, which maintains the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Agency staff were unavailable to immediately respond to questions.
The Los Alamos lab has been the only site for the production of weapons-grade plutonium since the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado closed in 1989. Pit production there reached 1,000 pits per year. About 10 pits are produced a year now, but the Department of Defense says it needs between 50 and 80 pits a year by 2030 to keep current nuclear weapons in good working order, according to the report. The Department of Energy maintains the nuclear weapons.
Greg Mello of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group said there have been eight different projects proposed since 1988 to increase the lab’s plutonium pit production.
“Every attempt has been characterized by the failure to prove need, failure to examine prudent alternatives and basically a triumph of ideology, contractor self-interest and pork barrel politics over sound policy decisions,” Mello said. “That’s why they have all failed.”
The federal Nuclear Posture Review that lays out the nation’s goals for its nuclear arsenal says the U.S. won’t develop new nuclear warheads, but will simply extend the life of the existing arsenal. The Department of Defense and the Department of Energy say new plutonium pits will be needed to maintain the arsenal as some components degrade or are modified.
Plutonium pits form the core of a warhead. Surrounded by other explosives, they are the trigger for blowing up a thermonuclear weapon.
But plutonium is a highly radioactive metal and tough to work with, requiring highly specialized buildings and security. Plutonium is manufactured from uranium fuel rods into different isotopes.
Medalia called plutonium “quirky.” Former Los Alamos lab director Siegried Hecker called it “an element at odds with itself,” capable of becoming “as brittle as glass” or flexible like aluminum. Instead of shrinking when it becomes solid, it expands.
Given it’s odd nature, plutonium has to be mixed with other materials to make it more stable inside warheads.
Handling plutonium and mixing the materials is inherently dangerous. If inhaled, as more than a dozen workers did during a recent leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad, radiation from the particles can cause lung cancer.
In addition, buildings with plutonium need high security to prevent terrorists from attempting to steal the metal and use it in improvised nuclear weapons, according to the Congressional Research Service report.
Plutonium decays, but very slowly. Recent studies put the projected life of a pit at 100 years to 150 years, according to the report. In 2013, Penrose Albright, then director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory testified before Congress that existing pits are good for “many decades to come.”
The slow decay rate is one reason Mello doesn’t think the Department of Defense needs the number of pits its projecting.
Some plutonium work is carried out in the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building, which opened in 1952. Medalia said in a mid-February presentation that a congressional commission described the facility as “genuinely decrepit” and “structurally unsound.” In particular, it isn’t built to withstand earthquakes, a risk in Los Alamos, which is built on seismic faults. A seismic expert Medalia talked to for the report says that in any given decade there’s a 1-in-36 chance of the building collapsing from an earthquake.
The agency wants to move all plutonium research and operations out of the building by 2019.
Pit production at Los Alamos also has taken place at another facility called PF-4, but there are concerns that building won’t withstand an earthquake. The facility was shut down last year due to those concerns and worries about weaknesses in its operations, but it has since partially reopened, according to the lab.
During budget hearings last year, the Senate Armed Services Committee criticized the National Nuclear Security Administration for spending a decade and more than $350 million on designing a facility to replace the aging Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building, then putting the project on hold. Funding for another nuclear facility project was canceled.
Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.