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"Forget the Rest" blog

 

For Immediate Release Friday, 3/21/14

Feds Postpone Plutonium Warhead Factory in Los Alamos

NNSA: Acquisition of intermediate production capacity not needed until 2026; higher capacity not mentioned

Green group halts CMRR-NF litigation: “No longer needed for now.”

Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200 office, 505-577-8563 cell

Albuquerque, NM – This week the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy (DOE), released the details of its proposed fiscal year (FY) 2015 budget.[1]

In a dramatic change of course from previous years that could save taxpayers billions of dollars while avoiding significant environmental impacts, the Administration’s new budget contains no near-term plan for constructing additional plutonium infrastructure to make warhead cores (“pits”).

Consistently, the new budget document also postpones the target date for increased pit production capacity (up to 30 pits per year) for five years, from 2021 to 2026.[2]

A recent year-long congressional study suggests ways to achieve higher capacity without construction of new facilities.[3]

There is also no mention in the budget of the previous capacity goal of 80 pits per year, which the Administration said in 2010 would be in place by 2022,[4] and in 2013, “starting as early as 2030.”[5]

The proposed new W78/W88 “interoperable” warhead for land- and sea-based ballistic missiles, which was expected to require pit production – the first warhead which would do so apart from a small production run of W88 pits for the Navy, now concluded – was also postponed for at least five years in the new budget, effectively canceling the new warhead.

In addition, production of a proposed new cruise missile warhead, which might also require new pits depending on the design chosen and quantity required, was deferred three years, to 2026.

With the deferral of these two warheads, which comprise(d) a central part of the nuclear weapon laboratory workload in the 2020s, much of the Administration’s June 2013 stockpile stewardship plan  became obsolete.[6]

Assistant Secretary of Defense Andrew Weber had testified in April 2013 that:

[T]here is no daylight between the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense on the need for both a near-term pit production capacity of 10 to 20 and then 30 by 2021, and then in the longer term for a pit production capacity of 50 to 80 per year.[7] 

With this new budget, this seemingly-firm policy is no longer extant.

In 2010, acquisition of large-scale plutonium pit production capacity, via the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), was NNSA’s highest and most urgent infrastructure priority.[8]  After the indefinite “delay” of CMRR-NF, NNSA embraced a near-term “modular” strategy for constructing plutonium facility space at LANL,[9] which had been developed and advanced by LANL at NNSA’s request.[10]

With this year’s budget, the “modular” plan has been relegated to “pre-conceptual design” of a “concept,” with no timeline.   

The CMR Transition activities include developing detailed plans to re-establish CMR capabilities; equipment purchases for AC and MC, leveraging safety basis changes that allow an increase in the amount of plutonium metal in RLUOB; planning and pre-conceptual design efforts for the re-use of several rooms in PF-4 by removing old equipment and installing new equipment; and pre-conceptual design efforts for the modular acquisition concept.  (p. 213, emphasis added.)

The FY15 budget merely "[c]ontinues and expands plutonium studies and planning at LANL in support of plutonium capability modernization" (p. 214.)  There is no new, or modified existing, line-item for design or construction for any new plutonium facilities, including any tunnels (previously identified by LANL as an early phase of the module project).

Today’s Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor quotes NNSA Defense Programs chief Don Cook as saying module construction won’t begin for “several more years.”

Construction on new modules for plutonium work, an idea conceived after CMRR-NF was deferred, won’t begin for several more years, NNSA weapons program chief Don Cook said earlier this month. “The modules are part of the third phase, and until we know how many of them [are needed] and the detailed design we won’t be requesting money for them,” Cook said. Acting NNSA Administrator Bruce Held said the strategy will keep the agency on track to get out of the existing Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility by 2019. “What we’re actually spending on all forms of plutonium, the technology, the infrastructure, the science, keeping the workforce in place is around $300 million per annum and that’s giving us the base to develop these ideas very well,” Cook said.

The Los Alamos Study Group, which sued NNSA in 2010 and again in 2011 to halt the CMRR-NF project pending more applicable environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), announced today that the group will drop its current litigation against the project.  This litigation has been in abeyance as NNSA plans have shifted.

“That particular NEPA litigation is not needed any more,” said Study Group director Greg Mello.  “We will decide on any future litigation depending on what is proposed next, if anything, and with what quality of environmental compliance.  We believe NNSA has been on a learning curve with respect to its plutonium needs and facility plans, as well as its construction plans generally.  We believe no new facilities are needed.  We hope no further litigation is necessary.”

Background

Over the past 26 years DOE has had a number of plans to build new facilities for the manufacture of the plutonium “pits” that comprise the fissile cores of the first (“primary”) nuclear explosive in thermonuclear warheads.  Beginning in the 1950s, pits were manufactured at the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver.  Rocky Flats was closed by a joint EPA/FBI raid in June, 1989 and never reopened. 

Nearly all pits in today’s deployed warheads and bombs were made at Rocky Flats from 1980 to 1989, which means nearly all of them are at most 34 years old this year.

There are more than 14,000 surplus pits stored at the Pantex nuclear weapons plant near Amarillo, TX, of which thousands are potentially reusable.[11]

Over this period there have been approximately eight pit manufacturing infrastructure plans; none were completed for a variety of reasons.[12]  Looking past the unique details of each proposal and why each proposal was set aside, a constant factor has been the continuing weak justification for large-scale pit production capacity itself.

The perceived need and urgency to augment pit production capacity has diminished over time as the stockpile has contracted, as studies of pit longevity have borne fruit (finding that pits have very long “working” lives), and as proposals for new-design warheads requiring new pits, have been postponed or canceled.

Requirements for pit manufacturing capacity reached a post-Cold-War peak in 2003 when the proposed Modern Pit Facility was said to require a capacity of between 125-450 pits/year and be in full production by 2021.[13]  At that time, the minimum pit lifetime was jointly estimated by Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) to be "45-60" years.[14]  This large capacity was in part driven by the Bush Administration’s plans to field a “family” of new “Reliable Replacement Warheads” (RRW).  That Administration’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review envisioned replacing the U.S. stockpile with new warheads more germane, it was thought, to post-Cold-War military requirements.

Congress rejected the RRW plan in early 2009.[15]  In 2006 the distinguished JASON group of defense scientists, reviewing the accumulating results of pit surveillance, long-term plutonium studies, and the accelerated pit aging experiments, summarized the consensus view of LANL and LLNL that most pits would last at least 85 years.  From NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks’ cover letter:

The conclusion of the JASON report is that most plutonium pit types have credible lifetimes of at least 100 years. Other pit types have mitigation strategies either proposed or being implemented. Overall, the studies showed that the majority of plutonium pits for most nuclear weapons types have minimum lifetimes of at least 85 years.[16]

Subsequent research has extended and qualified these conclusions.[17]  Perhaps most important, LANL now states in a communication to Congress that “Pit production to replace pits in the deployed stockpile due to plutonium aging is not required, nor is it planned to occur.”[18]  In other words, without new-design warheads, pit production for the stockpile is unnecessary.

In December 2007, President Bush announced stockpile retirements which reduced the nuclear weapons stockpile approximately by half.  Subsequent retirements under President Obama have been modest, but the cumulative effect, together with additional modest retirements under New START, have, in addition to the above factors, undermined the perceived need for pit production.

***ENDS***

[1] As of today all volumes of DOE’s budget details are now posted.

[2] FY2015 NNSA budget request, p. 64: “The priorities for the Weapons Activities appropriation are: …Execute a plutonium strategy that achieves a 30 pit per year capacity by 2026.”  Compare the previous year: NNSA FY2014 Budget Request: “The priorities for the Weapons Activities appropriation are: …Execute a plutonium strategy that achieves a 30 pit per year capacity by 2021.”  Emphasis added in both.

[3]U.S. Nuclear Weapon “Pit” Production Options for Congress,” Jonathan E. Medalia, CRS, Feb 21, 2014.

[4] FY2011 Biennial Plan and Budget Assessment on the Modernization and Refurbishment of the Nuclear Security Complex, Annex D, May 2010, p. 6.

[5] NNSA/DOE FY 2014 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, Jun 2013, p. 2-22.

[6] Ibid.  Multiple Capitol Hill sources have confirmed the obsolescence of the 2013 plan.

[7] Testimony of Andrew Weber, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, in U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Armed Services. Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. Hearing to Receive Testimony on Nuclear Forces and Policies in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2014 and the Future Years Defense Program, April 17, 2013, p. 15, http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/13-22%20-%204-17-13.pdf.  Thanks to Dr. Jonathan Medalia, Congressional Research Service, for this reference.

[8] As relayed to this organization by congressional staff at the time, who had asked this question of senior NNSA management.  This was also the priority recommendation of the “Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States” in their report, “America’s Strategic Posture” (at p. 51).

[9] Letter, Nuclear Weapons Council to four congressional committees re CMRR-NF reprogramming request, Jun 21, 2013.

[10] See for example CMRR Background Briefing to Senate Foreign Relations Staff, Craig Leasure, LANL, Jun 19, 2012.

[11] In 2007 a Pantex spokesperson said, "Pantex Plant is authorized to store up to 20,000 plutonium pits. Approximately, 14,000 are in interim storage at Pantex. Currently, there is no plan to increase the authorization figure," “Pantex eyes nuclear storage needs; plans for six new buildings for warhead storage in works,” Jim McBride, Amarillo Globe-News, September 15, 2007.  For an indication of how many extra pits and warheads are available, see p. 19 in  Los Alamos Study Group, "U.S. Plutonium 'Pit' Production: Additional Facilities, Production Restart are Unnecessary, Costly and Provocative," Mar 2, 2010.

[12] Seven plans are discussed on pp. 18-25 in “U.S. Nuclear Weapon “Pit” Production Options for Congress,” Jonathan E. Medalia, CRS, Feb 21, 2014.  The eighth plan was the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Upgrades project, which ran from circa 1991 to 2001.  The last $7 million in the CMRU project was transferred to become the first $7 M in the CMRR Project in 2001.  Appropriations for CMRU totaled $106 M from 1992 to 2001 (see http://www.lasg.org/CMRR/CMRR_cost_history.pdf).  In the early 1990s CMRU was the largest construction project in the DOE weapons complex, by total estimated cost.

[13] DOE, FY2005 Congressional Budget Request, Vol. 1, p. 150.

[14] Author’s 2002 interviews; see also Medalia, op. cit.

[15] FY2010 National Defense Authorization Act, section 3113, “Stockpile Management Program.”

[16] "Pit Lifetime," Jasons review on plutonium aging, JSR-06-335, The Mitre Corporation, Nov 20, 2006.

[17]Plutonium at 150 years: Going Strong and Aging Gracefully,” LLNL Science &Technology Review, Dec 2012; Los Alamos Study Group, “Plutonium in Warhead Cores (“Pits”) Stable to 150 Years, press release, Dec 6, 2012;  
Study Group comments on LANS letter in response to the Study Group's Dec 6 press release, Dec 12, 2012.

[18] http://www.lasg.org/LASG_comments_LANS_ltr_12Dec2012.html.  The LANL letter was supplied to us in email form, hence this format.


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