Jul 14, 2008
Los Alamos National Laboratory, already busy building parts for new nuclear warheads, could be assigned the job of taking apart old weapons, as well.
If the project goes forward, Los Alamos would be asked to pick up the slack left by a major dismantlement plant in South Carolina that is years behind schedule and more than a billion dollars over budget, according to a report obtained by the Journal.
Plutonium bomb parts would be dismantled at Los Alamos. The plutonium would be sent to the National Nuclear Security Administration's Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where it would be turned into fuel for electricity-generating nuclear power plants.
The New Mexico nuclear weapons laboratory is being considered for the job because of delays in completing the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility at Savannah River. The proposed plant would take apart plutonium pits — the explosive cores of nuclear weapons — and convert the dangerously radioactive plutonium into a plutonium-oxygen mixture suitable for use in nuclear power plant fuel.
The plant at Savannah River that was to do the work had an initial price tag of $346 million when it was launched in 2000, and the plant was to be completed and operating by 2004. The current price tag has grown to at least $2.4 billion, with actual construction work yet to begin. The current estimated completion date, according to federal budget documents, is 2019.
That delay poses a problem because of agreements with Russia aimed at reducing both nations' stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium.
Faced with the potential for years of delay, the National Nuclear Security Administration completed a study in May on the feasibility of using Los Alamos' plutonium lab complex to do some of the work in the interim.
Los Alamos set up a small-scale line of plutonium processing equipment in the 1990s to develop and test the equipment to be used in the South Carolina plant. While it was never intended for full-scale operations, the equipment is still there and could be modified to do the job on a modest scale, the study found.
Los Alamos was already planning to use the existing equipment in 2010 to process more than 2 tons of plutonium. The study suggests that work could be continued and expanded to process another 10 tons.
National Nuclear Security Administration spokeswoman Casey Ruberg declined comment, noting that the study was marked "official use only," meaning it was not supposed to be made public.
The work would employ more than 130 people at its peak at Los Alamos, according to the study.
There have been repeated questions in recent years about Los Alamos' ability to expand plutonium work in its 1970s-era concrete laboratory and manufacturing site. The lab is currently also making plutonium weapon cores in the same building, a job that could grow substantially under a plan now under consideration by the federal government. In an August 2006 report, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board questioned whether Los Alamos was capable of an even more modest expansion in bomb dismantlement work.
Los Alamos spokesman Kevin Roark said the lab could do the weapon dismantlement work if needed.
"It's doable if we're asked," Roark said.