Oct 10, 2008
Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
Federal officials Thursday unveiled a proposal to make Los Alamos a center for plutonium research as part of an overhaul of the nation's nuclear weapons complex — although a change of leadership in Washington could send them back to the drawing board.
“I recognize that these can be politically charged topics,” said National Nuclear Security Administration chief Thomas D'Agostino, explaining that he would not rush to make a decision on the plan just because a new president takes office in January. A decision on whether to adopt the plan is expected as soon as next month.
The proposal calls for transforming the Cold War-era way of doing things to a modern system that the NNSA says is efficient, safe and responsive to 21st-century threats.
“We have to make sure that we don't get ourselves into a situation where we outrun our headlights,” D'Agostino said in a conference call with reporters.
But that may already be the case at Los Alamos. The proposal would make the lab the center for cutting-edge nuclear weapons plutonium research, development and manufacturing, much of it crammed inside a 56-year-old laboratory that's showing its age.
D'Agostino stressed that it's vital to push forward with the construction of a replacement facility, even as lab managers lay plans to remain in the old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building for as long as a decade.
The proposal also punts on the question of whether Los Alamos should ramp up the production of plutonium bomb cores known as pits. Pit production would continue to be limited to 20 per year, though D'Agostino said the plan would give Los Alamos the annual manufacturing capability for as many as 80 pits.
D'Agostino said, even without pit manufacturing, a new plutonium lab is necessary at Los Alamos for the study of nuclear forensics and nonproliferation, the maintenance of the nation's stockpile and other national security needs. “We still have to maintain our nuclear deterrent,” he said.
Besides Los Alamos, the proposal would consolidate weapons-related work at NNSA sites known as “distributed centers of excellence.” Tritium work would go to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, for instance, while the Pantex plant outside Amarillo, Texas, would continue assembling and taking apart weapons.
The unveiling of the proposal follows 20 public hearings and more than 100,000 public comments. Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group applauded the NNSA's efforts in producing the environmental analysis of the plan, but faulted its conclusions.
“Today's weapons complex plan includes the construction of large new production facilities at Los Alamos” and the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., Mello said in a statement. “These projects would commit massive resources to largely obsolete, ineffective, 'sacred-cow' missions.”
Republican Sen. Pete Domenici praised the plan for highlighting the need to move forward with what's known as the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement building at LANL.
“It is important to understand that the CMRR nuclear facility is not a pit production facility,” he said in a statement. “Instead, it will support a broad range of national security missions, ranging from providing power for satellites to nuclear forensics.”
But Domenici said the proposal failed to clearly outline strong science missions for Los Alamos and Sandia national labs. “In my view, it is a shortsighted decision that ignores the fact that strong science and engineering missions are important to attracting the best minds to work within the complex,” he said.
D'Agostino signed off on the final environmental analysis of the plan Thursday, and notice of its availability will be posted in the Federal Register Oct. 24. At least 30 days after that, the NNSA can decide whether to adopt the plan, referred to in the environmental analysis as a “preferred alternative.”