Jul 3, 2007

Los Alamos lab delivers first bomb-ready nuke trigger in 18 years

July 2, 2007

Los Alamos National Laboratory has delivered to the federal government the first plutonium core certified for use in nuclear warheads in 18 years. The National Nuclear Security Administration certified the plutonium pit — a softball-size sphere of enriched uranium encased in stainless steel — in early June.

The pit, used as a trigger for nuclear weapons, was delivered shortly after that to the NNSA’s Pantex plant, 17 miles northeast of Amarillo, Texas, Kevin Roark, a lab spokesman, said Monday. Pantex maintains the safety, security and reliability of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. Politicians — including Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. — along with Energy Department and Defense Department officials gathered in Los Alamos Monday to “congratulate the lab for a job well done,” Roark said.

The pit is designed for the W88 nuclear warhead carried by submarine-launched missiles, Roark said. The NNSA, the semiautonomous agency within the Energy Department that oversees the nuclear weapons program, has asked the lab to deliver 10 pits a year in the near term, Roark said.

The NNSA also has asked the lab to “go through the exercise to see whether it is possible to deliver between 30 and 50 per year” between 2012 and 2014, he said. Los Alamos lab has fashioned about 20 test plutonium pits since 2002, he said. “Based on those tests, you refine your manufacturing process and certification process and reach the conclusion along with the NNSA that you’ve satisfied all requirements,” Roark said.

Certified pits have not been made since 1989, when the federal government’s main pit factory in Colorado, Rocky Flats, was closed because of safety concerns and the end of the Cold War. The facility, 16 miles northwest of Denver, was severely polluted after four decades of nuclear weapons production. The test pits were needed because the lab could not produce them “in the way that Rocky Flats did,” Roark said. “A lot of changes had to be made.”

The pit was delivered some six months after the NNSA released a study saying the plutonium pits used in nuclear weapons have a longer shelf life than once believed. The study pegged the expected minimum life span for pits at 85 to 100 years, depending on the warhead. The government had long assumed that plutonium would deteriorate to the point it no longer could be relied upon in 45 years to 60 years.

The research was done by nuclear engineers at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories and reviewed by an outside panel of nuclear physicists and weapons experts. The new certified pit is not related to plutonium’s life span but is “driven by stockpile stewardship requirements,” Roark said. The government has been “taking apart a certain number of W88s per year and destructively testing them” to ensure they are aging as expected, he said. He declined to reveal any numbers.

“We’ve been doing that since 1989 and not replacing any of them. There comes a time when you’ve got to start putting them back. That’s why the nation has to recapture this ability,” he said. Susan Gordon, director of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability in Seattle, said that’s ludicrous. “We have thousands of plutonium pits in storage in this country. We just don’t need thousands,” she said. The alliance represents a network of citizen groups near federal nuclear weapons facilities.

Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, said the federal government re-established the pit program because “it actually wants to produce newly designed pits for new types of nuclear weapons.” “We have too many weapons and they ought to be retired anyway,” he said. “There’s 10,0000 intact weapons and there’s 15,000 pits in storage in Pantex,” Coghlan said. Santa Fe-based Nuclear Watch monitors activities at the Los Alamos lab.

Gordon said the nation is “stuck in a Cold War analysis in the usefulness of nuclear weapons in the 21st century.” “It’s clear when looking at the war in Iraq and the struggles in Iran and North Korea that our nuclear weapons are not serving as a deterrent anymore,” she said. Gordon and Mike McCally, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said the nation’s nuclear labs can play important roles in non-nuclear areas. “If I were a lab director, I would see nuclear weapons production as a fading industry,” McCally said. “The bid demands are in technology dealing with environmental problems — global warming and climate change — and we’re worried about terrorism, pandemic disease,” he said.

Physicians for Social Responsibility, based in Washington, D.C., advocates policies to stop nuclear proliferation and halt global warming.

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