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Playing for pits

By Mark Oswald / Journal Staff Writer
Friday, January 26th, 2018 at 12:02am


The Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where the huge MOX facility has been under construction for years, is being studied as a new site for production of plutonium 'pits,' the cores of nuclear weapons, which is now based at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Courtesy of High Flyer)

This story has been changed from an earlier version to correct its reference to a a resolution passed by the Santa Fe County Commission about clean-up and safety issues at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The mayor of Aiken, S.C., says his community is just the place for making plutonium “pits,” the cores of nuclear weapons.

The Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site, a few miles south of town, “has been serving the nuclear needs and the security of the country for six decades,” said Mayor Rick Osbon in a telephone interview.

“We view pit production as important to our country and our national security, and I think the (Savannah River) site lends itself uniquely to that,” Osbon said.

On Jan.8, the Aiken City Council passed a resolution encouraging the DOE and its semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the country’s nuclear weapons labs, to bring pit production to the Savannah River Site (SRS).

The city council of nearby North Augusta, S.C., and the Aiken County Council have approved similar measures. And county governments across the river in Georgia – where Augusta, Ga., famously home to the Masters Golf Tournament, is the area’s biggest city – are expected to consider their own pro-pit resolutions soon.

Over the past few months, SRS has emerged as a competitor with Los Alamos National Laboratory for pit production – to the chagrin of members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, which has been fighting to keep the massive undertaking and its jobs and millions of dollars in their state.

The United States, after mass-producing pits during the Cold War at the defunct Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, hasn’t made any new ones since 2011, when LANL completed the last of 29 plutonium cores for Navy submarine missiles. The most ever made at Los Alamos in a year is 11.

But NNSA is under orders from Congress and the Department of Defense to make 80 pits a year by about 2030 as part of a huge weapons modernization plan. At a meeting in Santa Fe in June, NNSA officials disclosed for the first time that a study was underway to determine if Los Alamos or somewhere else would be the best place to reach the pit-production mandate, despite several prior years of planning for new underground facilities for plutonium work at LANL.

Then a summary of the NNSA study leaked out that says it would be cheaper and quicker to make the pits at Savannah River Site. NNSA has since acknowledged that choices for making 80 pits a year are down to LANL and Savannah River, with engineering studies still to be done.

Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, along with Rep. Ben Ray Luján – whose district includes Los Alamos – recently fired off a letter to DOE Secretary Rick Perry maintaining that the NNSA study is flawed.

The study ignored the best options for continued pit-making at LANL and was skewed against the New Mexico lab by assuming that pit production goals, and therefore the square footage required for the work, would be much more than called for by Congress, the New Mexico delegates wrote.

Udall and Heinrich also inserted an amendment in the latest Defense budget bill that would require the Trump administration to meet certain requirements to justify moving pit manufacturing away from Los Alamos, including certification by the Secretary of Defense and review by the Nuclear Weapons Council.

But in South Carolina, local leaders see an opening to attract the pit work.

‘Grass-roots’ effort

“It’s something we are definitely interested in,” said Will Williams, CEO of the Economic Development Partnership, a public-private development corporation in the Aiken area. Williams has been working on drumming up local government support for the project.

“Our goal is kind of a grass-roots level effort,” he said this week. “We want to push it up from the local level saying, ‘We want you here.'”

Williams said a delegation will be heading to Washington, D.C., soon to seek help from South Carolina’s members of Congress.

Mayor Osbon has said pits could mean 800 new jobs, but Williams acknowledges there’s “nothing definite” on the job estimates.

Savannah River Site, with a workforce about the same size as LANL’s at about 11,000 jobs, is a key regional employer. “When SRS catches a cold, the communities around the site get pneumonia,” Williams said.

The boosterism for pits around Aiken contrasts with Santa Fe’s official stance on pits. While no local governing body has called for pit-making to go away from LANL, the Santa Fe City Council recently passed a resolution that isn’t exactly pit-friendly and calls for better safety at the lab up the hill.

The Santa Fe resolution cites recent safety lapses at LANL – the lab, for instance, recently was docked $3.1 million in fees by NNSA for sending plutonium cross-country using a commercial air cargo service – and requests “suspension of any planned expanded plutonium pit production at LANL until all nuclear criticality issues are resolved.”

The Santa Fe County Commission passed a similar resolution about safety and clean-up of hazardous material at LANL. It has portions that question the need for making more plutonium pits and saying that ramping up to 80 pits a year “is estimated to nearly double the generation of radioactive and toxic wastes.” But a section calling for suspension of pit production was removed before the measure was adopted.

Williams and Osbon say their communities in South Carolina are confident Savannah River Site can handle the work. “I think we feel comfortable with it and are certainly interested in pursuing it,” the mayor said.

MOX facility

A facility for pits at Savannah River Site would be created by converting the Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX, which was planned for conversion of weapons-grade plutonium from dismantled warheads into fuel for nuclear reactors.

But the giant project, which broke ground more than a decade ago, has faced delays, litigation and costs ballooning from an early estimate of $4 billion to a projected $17 million now. The Obama administration called for abandoning it.

Not everyone in the Aiken area is high on pits. Tom Clements, director of the Savannah River Site Watch group, issued a statement after news broke that SRS was in the running for pit production.

“While it’s clear that the MOX debacle is not sustainable and remains on a shut-down track, production of nuclear weapons pits at SRS is not a mission that should be pursued,” Clements said.

“SRS has not historically produced plutonium pits and to do so would greatly expand the role of SRS in nuclear weapons production, something which would be quite controversial and be faced with both political and public opposition. The MOX project must be smoothly terminated and other missions pursued at SRS but that should not include a new pit facility or expanded plutonium storage or processing.”

He’s not impressed with the local government resolutions advocating for pit production in South Carolina after all the problems with the MOX facility. “I think they just want to keep spending money,” he told Journal North this week.

There’s a new twist in the available information on what NNSA has under consideration.

A NNSA document, now posted online and which was presented at an Española meeting of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities earlier this month, says the ongoing study of where to meet the pit-making mandate assumes continuation of operations at Los Alamos aimed at making about 30 pits per year by 2026.

At issue, then, is where best to get to 80 pits a year – Savannah River or Los Alamos.

Comment by Greg Mello on the above article:

Mr. Shiflett makes a good point, valid in these divided times as in previous eras. LBJ closed Walker AFB in Roswell (as opposed to others) for multiple reasons, not just because it was excess to need.

By the way, NNSA's analysis and responses to questioners at its briefings reveal that NNSA envision LANL losing its 30 pit per year (ppy) mission as soon as a stable, larger capacity is established elsewhere. The LANL main plutonium facility (PF-4) will be 50 years old by the earliest time LANL could possibly reach that capacity. PF-4 has never been brought up modern standards of ventilation and fire protection and may never be. Toward the end of any facility's life, increasing frequency of down-time and problems are normal. NNSA is taking steps to (literally) shore up PF-4 (should even one column punch through the main floor, all the rest would fail, "like a zipper"), but precisely how long reliable operation will continue is anybody's guess. "Continue" is actually not the right word. LANL has never acheived reliable operation.

Los Alamos is losing this competition for fundamental, deeply valid and hard- or impossible-to-change geographic, demographic, and institutional reasons. A deeper policy question is why it is claimed that new pits are "needed" for the gigantic US nuclear arsenal -- needed to augment the existing inventory of 23,000 pits, of which approximately 12,000 are either a) in nuclear weapons now (deployed, reserved, intact but "retired": ~6,780) or are being preserved for possible future use in existing weapon systems (~5,000). Pits will last until late in this century. Deeper still is the question of why the US "needs" such an enormous world-ending arsenal. The truth is, the military, at the highest levels, sees nuclear weapons as larger conventional weapons, and still seeks a winning advantage in nuclear war. Trump's plan, to be fully revealed in a few days, just deepens this folly.

A deeper policy question is why our senators are involved with this instead of helping build the New Mexico economy. The short answer is that they work for the labs and military; the rest is window-dressing. Senator Heinrich would like us all to know that he promotes solar energy, Fine, but minor greenwashing. Like other Democrats, and despite being an intelligent man and an engineer, he articulates *no* climate-protecting policies, while seeking electoral advantage -- while also pandering to fossil fuel industries. The late Sheldon Wolin, one of America's preeminent political scientists, called the Democrats "the inauthentic opposition."

Why will Los Alamos lose?
* Differences in local support, as mentioned in the article, including trenchant, expert, organized opposition in New Mexico.
* Continued, repeated, LANL failures at this mission, widely appreciated in Washington. LANL will have a very hard time reaching 30 pits/year, if indeed that is possible. We think it unlikely.
* Putting the pit mission in SC solves multiple budgetary and political problems for a large majority in Congress. A brand new, huge plutonium facility is under construction in SC. The original mission of that facility is ending.
* The SC region in question has a larger population, many technical schools and industries, significant manufacturing employment and skills, greater residential desirability and affordability, a significant nearby airport with interstate service, and far greater local equality and fewer drug problems.
* The DOE site is huge, has a large industrial and waste management infrastructure, experience with plutonium, and will be much easier to manage as a production site.

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