Thursday, November 15, 2007
LANL Top Choice for 'Pits'
By John Fleck Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
Los Alamos National Laboratory is the leading candidate to be the nation's permanent nuclear weapons plutonium manufacturing center— but on a modest scale.
That's what the officials from the National Nuclear Security Administration have been saying in briefings at Los Alamos and on Capitol Hill, the Journal has learned.
The officials have begun laying out a plan that would designate Los Alamos' main plutonium lab as the preferred manufacturing center for future U.S. plutonium "pits"— the explosive centers of modern nuclear weapons.
The choice of Los Alamos reflects a decision to scale back the nation's nuclear weapons manufacturing ambitions.
The plutonium plan is one piece of a broad effort by the NNSA to streamline the U.S. complex for designing, manufacturing and maintaining nuclear weapons.
A draft of that plan is due to be released within the next month, according to agency spokesman John Broehm.
Officials at Los Alamos and the nuclear agency declined to comment, adding that any discussions before the plan's public release are "pre-decisional."
Los Alamos can do the job partly because the demand for future pit production is small, according to Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who has been briefed on the nuclear agency's proposal.
According to Bingaman, the agency has concluded that the new "reliable replacement warhead," a proposal to build a new generation of nuclear warheads, is not likely to go forward. With no need for the new pits, the future demand for the plutonium bomb parts should be small, Bingaman said.
"Production of RRW appears to be off the table," Bingaman said in a statement, "which means there is no reason we'll need a full-scale pit production facility. Los Alamos was tapped years ago to develop a limited number of pits on an annual basis, and I see no reason for that to change in the future."
During the Cold War, the Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver made hundreds of pits a year. Rocky Flats closed in 1989 amid concerns over safety and environmental problems associated with the dangerously radioactive plutonium.
Since then, the nuclear weapons establishment has been looking for a Rocky Flats replacement.
In the late 1990s, a lab at Los Alamos was assigned the job of making 10 pits per year as a temporary measure until a permanent new factory could be built. The first Los Alamos-made pit suitable for installation in a U.S. nuclear weapon was completed earlier this year.
In October 2006, the nuclear agency launched "Complex 2030," an ambitious long-range plan to build an entirely new nuclear weapons manufacturing complex, including a plutonium plant capable of making 125 pits per year.
Five sites were named at the time as possible hosts for the Rocky Flats replacement— Los Alamos, the Nevada nuclear weapons test site, the Pantex bomb assembly plant outside Amarillo, Texas, the Y-12 uranium plant in Tennessee and the Savannah River plutonium processing plant in South Carolina.
That proposal has foundered, running into significant congressional opposition. Its replacement, renamed "Complex Transformation," is due to be unveiled within the next month.
Instead of a new pit factory, the revised plan will call for doing the plutonium manufacturing within Los Alamos National Lab's existing Technical Area 55, a large concrete-walled fortress built in the 1970s, according to sources familiar with the plan.
A 2006 study of the lab's capability concluded it could manufacture a maximum of 50 to 80 pits per year, far fewer than Rocky Flats at its peak and fewer than in the federal proposal released a year ago.
Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who represents Los Alamos, expressed concern that even the modest pit production rate contemplated in the plan is too much.
He reiterated his call for diversification away from nuclear weapons work at the northern New Mexico research center.