By ROGER SNODGRASS, Monitor Editor
A government watchdog group wrote to Energy Secretary Bodman on Friday questioning the reliability of nuclear pit manufacturing efforts at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
A letter by the Project on Government Accountability Executive Director Danielle Brian expressed the group’s concern about the number of waivers granted to LANL in its current work fashioning plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons.
LANL took over the pit-making job from the Rocky Flats plant that closed in 1989.
On Saturday, a story by H. Josef Hebert, a national correspondent who covers energy, environment and nuclear issues for the Associated Press, said POGO was raising questions about whether the lab’s new replacement nuclear triggers for W88 warheads in Trident missile are as trustworthy as the ones currently used in the submarine’s arsenal.
Specifically, POGO’s information states that the plutonium pit production program at LANL required 72 waivers in the production process, 7 administrative exceptions, 5 product exceptions and 53 engineering authorization changes.
Among other changes from the Rocky Flats process, LANL’s pits are “cast,” while the previous pits were “wrought.”
Hebert said he talked to “a scientist indirectly involved in the production process,” who “spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject.”
A spokesman for Los Alamos National Laboratory said the waivers were fully approved, a normal part of the process and in no way an indication of an inferior product.
“It has been peer-reviewed and independently evaluated through engineering and scientific and administrative reviews,” said Kevin Roark of the lab’s Communication Office. “There hasn’t been a product that has come out of here that has been more scrutinized than this product.”
The laboratory celebrated the acceptance of its first nuclear pit for inclusion into the nuclear stockpile last summer.
The first pit produced by the United States in nearly two decades was followed by another eight pits before the end of the fiscal year.
A pit that is fully certified for acceptance and use in the stockpile is given a special “diamond stamp” by the agency in charge of the nuclear weapons complex, the National Nuclear Security Administration.
LANL was authorized to produce as many as 20 pits per year in 1999, and under a new proposal by NNSA would be allowed to manufacture up to 80 pits a year.
The pit-manufacturing issue has been a dividing line between weapons advocates who see a need to maintain the manufacturing capability for the foreseeable future and opponents who claim that the U.S. has enough plutonium pits to last for years to come.