LASG header
Follow TrishABQ on Twitter Follow us
"Forget the Rest" blog


For Immediate Release August 28, 2014

$4.3 Billion in Additional Construction, Equipment Proposed for Los Alamos Plutonium Factory

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

Albuquerque, NM – The Weapons Complex Monitor (WCM), a trade publication, reported this morning that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) now estimates that the “first phase” of the latest strategy to produce additional plutonium warhead cores (“pits”) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) will cost between $1.5 and $2.1 billion (B).

This new cost estimate does not include proposed construction of two 5,000 sq. ft. underground laboratory “modules” and associated tunnels, which are estimated to cost in the ballpark of $2.2 B, according to the Study Group’s congressional sources.  WCM reports these roughly-estimated costs today as “approximately another $2 B,” in concurrence with our sources.[1]

Total ballpark capital costs for the proposed LANL plutonium complex have now risen to $4.3 B, not including new waste-handling and disposal facilities, new security facilities, electrical upgrades, and other required new construction.

Of this $1.5 - 2.1 B, $505-675 million (M) would be spent to upgrade and install new equipment in a 2009 structure called the Radiological Laboratory, Utility, and Office Building (RLUOB), completed in 2009 at a cost of $199 M, plus $197 M for subsequent equipment installation, or $396 M so far.[2]  The other $995 M to $1.4 B would be spent re-tooling the interior of the main plutonium facility at LANL, Building PF-4.

NNSA expects to fund these two steps as subprojects within the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) budget line.  The CMRR project was halted in September of 2012 leaving a large unspent balance, some of which has already been spent on interim steps toward the new plan.

Since 1989 there have been ten or more strategies to increase U.S. capacity to produce pits.[3]  To date, none have been successful.

Pits are the fissile cores of atomic bombs, the first explosive stage or “trigger” in thermonuclear warheads (“H-bombs”).  The U.S. has at least 14,000 pits in storage[4] at Pantex nuclear weapons plant near Amarillo, TX and roughly another 7,300 in assembled warheads and bombs.[5]  Most if not all pits will last at least 85 years if not much longer.[6]

All, or nearly all, deployed pits were made in the 1980s at the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, i.e. they are 34 years old or younger.

Nevertheless, NNSA currently expects to begin stockpile pit production in 2024 with 10 pits, increasing to 20 in 2025, 30 in 2026, and so on to “50-80” pits per year in 2030.[7]

The overall estimated capital cost of the new “cheaper” strategy, including the $396 M spent on RLUOB so far but not including the admitted $460 M wasted on CMRR-NF, is now above the estimated lowest cost of the 2010 CMRR project.[8]

Operating costs are additional.

On July 25 of this year, the interagency Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC) formally endorsed design and construction of two underground lab modules, which under the plan would achieve full operating capability no later than 2027 (trade press article; NWC letter).  So-called “pre-conceptual” module design will begin next fiscal year (i.e. on October 1) in preparation for so-called “Critical Decision” (CD) -0, which formally establishes a project for which NNSA can request line-item funding.[9]

It is not yet clear whether there will be a new funding line item requested for modules in February of next year as part of the President’s fiscal year (FY) 2016 budget request.

On August 15, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported that NNSA’s new pit strategy included handling up to 400 grams (g) of weapons-grade plutonium (WgPu) in RLUOB, a building originally designed to handle only up to 6 g (a limit which was subsequently administratively increased to 26 g).

RLUOB was designed to an old 1995 seismic standard that was known to be grossly insufficient at the time as a result of LANL’s extensive post-1995 research and analysis.  As a result, RLUOB does not meet today’s building codes.

NNSA believes that the maximum emissions of plutonium that could occur from RLUOB as a result of seismic collapse and subsequent fire would not exceed DOE standards.

Study Group director Greg Mello: “Nothing makes sense here.  If pits were needed, LANL could make them today – that is, if its existing plutonium facility weren’t shut down because of serious safety problems and lack of investment.

“But pits aren’t needed until, at the earliest, 2065.  By 2035, we will have spent a trillion dollars to modernize today’s huge arsenal, assuming we keep it all.  We won’t.

“After wasting $500 million on the CMRR fiasco, NNSA now wants to convert idle new labs in a building that doesn’t meet building codes into a nuclear facility, thumbing its nose at its own safety regulations again.  Why do this?  NNSA already manages underutilized labs in Livermore and Savannah River which could pick up any slack required.

“The scale of the proposed investment, on top of the billions that have already been spent on pit production at LANL, makes it clear this is not a strategy for merely maintaining warheads.  This is about building new kinds of warheads – thousands of them, 50 to 80 per year with even greater surge capacity.

“We will do whatever it takes to make sure new warhead factories and new weapons are not built.  We will rise up forcefully because, among many other reasons, this proposal would mean economic and cultural decline for the Santa Fe metro area, for New Mexico, and for the country.”


[1] Modules are thus expected to cost $200,000 per net sq. ft. of useful space, considerably more than the $152,000/sq. ft. estimated for the cancelled Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF).

[2] RLUOB is already one of the most expensive construction projects in New Mexico history in constant dollar terms, except the three interstate highways that cross the state.  Should this project proceed, it would quickly set the all-time record.

[3] See Jon Medalia, U.S. Nuclear Weapon “Pit” Production Options for Congress, Congressional Research Service, Feb. 21, 2014 for eight of these, including the 1989 Special Nuclear Materials Laboratory (SNML) at LANL which is not separately listed.  Not listed: the “Capability Maintenance and Improvement Project” (CMIP) was a 1990s-era program to increase pit production capacity using operating funds, an on-going process.  The “interim” plutonium strategy proposed in 2012 is another, which has now become the current “build two new modules and retrofit two buildings” strategy, for a total of ten.  There were in addition various contingency strategies, such as the late-1990s “Rapid Reconstitution Plan.”  Billions of dollars have been spent on these various strategies over the past 25 years.  LANL states its current pit production is 10 pits per year (see for example Medalia, op. cit., p. 30), one-fifth the capacity DOE stated that LANL had in 1996.

The details are beyond the scope of this press release, but it is important to note that DOE chose LANL for the pit production mission in substantial part because no new construction for this mission would be needed at LANL.  The total estimated capital cost then for establishing the necessary capacity to maintain the stockpile (then twice as large as today) was, as I recall, between $300 and $400 M.  Details are available upon request.

[4] As of September 2007, Pantex had about 14,000 pits in storage (Jim McBride, “Pantex eyes nuclear storage needs,” Amarillo Globe-News, September 15, 2007).  The number of pits in storage grows as warheads are dismantled.

[5] “Worldwide deployments of nuclear weapons, 2014,” Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Aug. 26, 2014.

[6] "Pit Lifetime," JASON, The Mitre Corporation, Nov 20, 2006; "Lifetime Extension Program," (Executive Summary), JASON, Sep 9, 2009; Plutonium at 150 years: Going Strong and Aging Gracefully, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Science and Technology Review, Dec 2012; Plutonium in Warhead Cores (“Pits”) Stable to 150 Years, Los Alamos Study Group, Dec 6, 2012; Study Group comments on LANL letter in response to Study Group's Dec 6 press release, Dec 12, 2012.

See also Reasons Not to Build, or to Delay CMRR-NF, Los Alamos Study Group, May 22, 2011; "U.S. Plutonium 'Pit' Production: Additional Facilities, Production Restart are Unnecessary, Costly and Provocative," Los Alamos Study Group, Mar 2, 2010.  Interestingly, NNSA has also posted the latter paper.

[7] Table 2-3, NNSA/DOE FY 2015 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, Report to Congress, Apr 10, 2014.

[8]Update to the National Defense Authorization Act of FY2010 Section 1251 Report,” New START Treaty Framework and Nuclear Force Structure Plans," Nov 2010.  Official estimates for CMRR costs were never updated after this document. 

[9] Under the applicable Department of Energy (DOE) project management order (O413.3B), the module project could continue using program (operating) funds until reaching CD-1, when the “project execution phase” begins.

^ back to top

2901 Summit Place NE Albuquerque, NM 87106, Phone: 505-265-1200

home page calendar contact contribute