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LANL’s nuclear bomb trigger production questioned

Posted: Tuesday, August 9, 2016 11:15 pm | Updated: 12:08 am, Wed Aug 10, 2016.

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

A new report by a congressional advisory agency raises questions about federal efforts to aggressively restart production of nuclear bomb triggers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, saying the plan has shortcomings ranging from the accuracy of cost estimates to uncertainty about the lab’s ability to complete the project.

The Government Accountability Office said Tuesday that the National Nuclear Security Administration lacked sufficient data to justify federal spending of more than $2.8 billion over the life of the project to increase production of plutonium pits — the grapefruit-size fission triggers inside a nuclear bomb — which the U.S. Energy Department has said is critical to modernizing the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

The plan to update aging weapons from the Cold War era includes the refurbishment of the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb and the planned development of a long-range standoff cruise missile.

In December, Los Alamos National Laboratory announced it was on track to restart plutonium pit production, with a goal of generating between 50 and 80 pits per year by 2030. Pit production previously was stalled as a result of safety concerns at the lab’s facilities. In May, a separate report raised new safety concerns, saying fire-prevention features at one of the lab’s plutonium facility, PF-4, could fail in the event of an earthquake.

The GAO report found that the NNSA’s projected costs of the pit production project, and cost savings, were overstated and weren’t analyzed by an independent, unbiased party. It said the NNSA also has yet to release a complete schedule for replacing equipment at its outdated facilities, which has led to “different understandings among senior agency officials about how well the project will support pit production.”

Should the project fail, the report noted, there are no alternative pit production projects considered by the agency.

Frank Klotz, under secretary of nuclear security and NNSA administrator, said in a letter dated July 8 that the report’s criticism failed to account for the “depth and breadth” of efforts the agency has taken to “improve project management.” Some of the planned improvements take time to implement, he said, adding that the GAO misinterpreted the relationship between the CMRR project and the production of plutonium pits.

LANL spokesman Kevin Roark referred questions about the GAO report to the NNSA.

Francie Israeli, a spokeswoman for the NNSA, declined to provide additional comment.

The GAO report recommends several actions for the NNSA, such as conducting a risk assessment of the project’s schedule and completing an analysis of alternate ways to meet the nation’s nuclear stockpile goals.

The agency notes that its investigation was spurred by billions of dollars the NNSA wasted on construction projects that were revised or suspended before completion, including $450 million spent on a new pit production building planned at Los Alamos, a project that later was abandoned in favor of a plan that calls for using an existing space.

Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear think tank, said the GAO report underscores the NNSA’s lack of transparency, not only on the cost of pit production but also on the need for additional pits.

“Haunting this whole report, but not mentioned, is the ambiguity of the requirement itself to make so many pits,” he said.

With more than 16,000 plutonium pits already in the nation’s stockpile — each one with the capacity to flatten an entire metropolitan city — there is no justification for making more, he said.

The new GAO report came on the 71st anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, which killed at least 74,000 people during World War II. The bombing was marked Tuesday by moments of silence worldwide.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.


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