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"Forget the Rest" blog


For Immediate Release Thursday, 2/27/14 (minor corrections and two additional links, 2/28/14)

Congressional Study Shows Administration’s Proposed New Plutonium Warhead Factory at Los Alamos Is Unnecessary, Unadvised

High warhead core (“pit”) production capacity would be available much sooner, much cheaper, and with greater confidence of success using existing buildings at Los Alamos or elsewhere, new study shows; multiple options are available

Current Administration Plan Would Cost Billions, Other Congressional Sources Say

Los Alamos National Laboratory: no need for pit production due to plutonium aging

Of two proposed new warheads that might require new pits, one was recently canceled by DoD, and the other will be delayed, NNSA weapons chief says

Actually, no need for production of new pits has been articulated, Study Group points out

Albuquerque, NM – Today, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) published the most detailed analysis to date of the many ways the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) can meet its current requirement for a larger, more enduring capacity for producing plutonium warhead cores (“pits”) for U.S. nuclear bombs and warheads (“U.S. Nuclear Weapon ‘Pit’ Production Options for Congress,” Jonathan E. Medalia, Congressional Research Service, Feb 21, 2014).

The author is a senior nuclear security analyst at CRS.  The study was informed over the past year by extensive consultations with Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the Los Alamos Study Group, and others.

Over the past 25 years, NNSA and its predecessor organization have proposed roughly eight (8) different pit production infrastructure plans, not including the current “modular” plan, all of which have been abandoned after various degrees of investment.  In his report, Dr. Medalia provides a brief history of what he calls this “Sisyphean” struggle.[1]

Over the 2002 to 2012 decade, by our calculation, some $635 million (M) was appropriated for just one of these projects, the failed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at LANL.  The CMRR-NF was indefinitely delayed in February, 2012.  Over the course of just one year, the huge CMRR-NF project went from being NNSA’s most important warhead construction priority to admittedly unnecessary as designed, the money invested in it up to then wasted.  Although some $50 million remains in the CMRR project account, CMRR-NF has fallen out of favor with all government parties and is widely considered terminated. 

Beginning in 2102 NNSA and LANL started preparing another plan featuring multiple underground factory “modules” to be built in the 3-acre site where the now-cancelled CMRR-NF was to be built.  The modules would be connected to existing buildings by tunnels.   Congressional sources believe these underground “modules” would cost in excess of $1 billion each, with the total scope and cost of the overall module project as yet undetermined and evolving.  The FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act, signed by the President, authorizes construction of at least two modules provided the DOE, DoD, and military agree the modules would be in service by 2027. 

The single most robust result of the CRS study is that any such decision would be premature. 

By way of background, in late 2012 LANL wrote Congress regarding pit production requirements, saying (among other things), "Pit production to replace pits in the deployed stockpile due to plutonium aging is not required, nor is it planned to occur."  The Government Accountability Office (GAO), in a study of plutonium infrastructure needs published last year, recommended that "the Secretary of Energy continue efforts to assess how plutonium research and other capability needs and stockpile requirements have changed, if at all, since the needs were revalidated in 2008," a finding with which DOE agreed. 

The present CRS study is based on the 2008 pit production requirement, which has been carried forward largely unexamined within government.  As the study notes, this requirement was based in part on the expected capacity of LANL with the CMRR-NF in place, a logically circular process.  Studies by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), currently unavailable to the Study Group, reportedly give a maximum needed capacity, that is only half as much (40 pits per year vs. 80 pits per year), underscoring the study's primary conclusion. 

Since the study began, the perceived need for new pits has declined.  The first warhead Life Extension Program (LEP) that might have needed new pits – the proposed W78/W88 “interoperable” warhead – was indefinitely delayed in December at the request of DoD, as many sources on Capitol Hill agree.  The other source of possible “demand” for new pits is the proposed new cruise missile (“Long Range Stand Off” missile, or LRSO) warhead.  Dr. Don Cook, Deputy Administrator of NNSA for Defense Programs, stated this month that this proposed warhead, which was slated to enter full production in 2025, is now expected to first enter production in the “2025-2027 timeframe,” a significant delay also verified by other sources.[2]  There is no indication, as yet, that pit production is required for this warhead – or any other. 

The U.S. currently has more than 15,000 pits in storage at the Pantex nuclear warhead factory near Amarillo, approximately 5,000 of which are being kept as a strategic reserve.  Thousands of high-quality, surplus pits are available for re-use in their original configurations and selected other configurations, their suitability for which was verified by full-scale nuclear tests prior to the cessation of nuclear testing in 1992.  The Pantex weapons assembly plant near Amarillo, TX uses state-of-the art pit tomography equipment for this purpose, installed by LLNL.  In 2010 the Study Group prepared a chart of the estimated pits available, by type, in both the deployed and reserve arsenals as well as in storage (see p. 19 of "U.S. Plutonium 'Pit' Production: Additional Facilities, Production Restart are Unnecessary, Costly and Provocative," Mar 2, 2010). 

Although we are not privy to classified information, no need for stockpile pit production has been brought forth by any of the cognizant government parties.

Today's study comes to the same conclusion as prior Study Group analyses in March, 2010 (above) and December, 2010 ("The Proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF): New Realities Call for New Thinking") and in 2011 Study Group testimony in its litigation against CMRR-NF. 

Since its creation in 1999 NNSA has spent about $2 billion dollars on designs for construction projects it subsequently decided not to build.  The agency is also now in the process of reevaluating, mothballing, and/or abandoning still other construction projects on which several additional billions of dollars have been spent. 

Study Group director Greg Mello: “National issues aside, here in New Mexico it is often jobs and economic development that most concern decisionmakers and journalists. 

“Plutonium lies at the heart of LANL’s mission.  It is LANL’s most irreducible program, the one not fully duplicated anywhere else.  It requires long-lasting infrastructure decisions and they affect not just environmental impacts and risks but also the identity and economic development potential of the region. 

“That is why this report is so important to northern New Mexico.  It tells us we need not suffer an expansion of plutonium infrastructure at LANL, even under the most obsolete, hawkish assumptions. 

“Over 70 years of lavish funding, LANL has failed to produce economic development in the region.  More such funding will not change this record.  In particular, investment in unneeded additional high-hazard nuclear facilities, built for missions which are both outmoded and shameful, are not in the region’s interest. 

Local leaders must understand that nuclear weapons, by far the largest mission of LANL since its inception, are declining in national importance.  We have now a wonderful chance to regain our independence from ‘The Bomb,’” a misplaced loyalty which has hurt the region. 

“The U.S. has pledged complete nuclear disarmament in treaties it has signed, and a burgeoning international movement has grown up that would ban nuclear weapons entirely.  We welcome that movement and encourage everyone, including LANL, to do so as well.  It’s been a long time, but we’ve got a chance to get on the right side of history now.”


[1] The study mentions seven.  The eighth is the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Upgrades (CMRU) project, which was pursued from 1991 to 2001, often in parallel to other plans.  In the early 1990s CMRU was the largest capital project in the nuclear warhead complex in dollar terms. 

[2] In a speech at the Sixth Annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit.

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