Disbelief haunts NNSA's early approval of Los Alamos pit production project

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Colin Demarest, Aiken Standard, S.C.
·5 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Apr. 30—In a succinct announcement this week, the National Nuclear Security Administration disclosed it could cost almost $4 billion to establish the production of 30 plutonium pits per year at Los Alamos National Laboratory, an installation in New Mexico with roots sprung from World War II.

The preliminary cost estimate — between $2.7 billion and $3.9 billion, expected to be refined over time — left some scratching their heads, others in disbelief.

"I don't believe it," one official said, rejecting info tied to a complex conceptual design process. The person was granted anonymity to speak freely. "They have failed in their estimates so many times that, just based on tradition, why would one believe these numbers are correct?"

Little in the announcement, posted to the Department of Energy's website and emailed out, told of how the money would be spent or what, exactly, the approach to making the nuclear weapon cores would be. And while the multibillion-dollar reanimation is anticipated to finish no later than 2028, pits are due sooner than that.

An NNSA spokesperson on Friday said the project, another step along now, "phases equipment installation to ensure the base capability to produce 30 pits per year will be available in 2026, followed by additional equipment installation to enhance long term production reliability at the required rate." It is one thing to install equipment and have it primed; it is another to reliably produce the warhead components using that equipment.

Environmentalists and nuclear watchdog groups were quick to question the federal notice, several paragraphs long and laden with requisite technical terms. The lack of supporting documents was suspect to Savannah River Site Watch Director Tom Clements, who later described the preparatory price tag as an "assessment that may well have no connection to a more realistic cost estimate that could be presented in the future."

A more formal cost and schedule baseline is expected in 2023 alongside another milestone.

The NNSA uses Government Accountability Office best-business practices "to develop a performance baseline cost and schedule for large construction projects once design is complete, which happens at CD-2," the NNSA spokesperson explained. "Any cost and schedule estimates developed for CD-0 are rough orders of magnitude. The CD-1 estimates establish range projections based on the conceptual design."

Los Alamos Study Group's Greg Mello was also skeptical, if not alarmed. A history of cost fluctuations and other uncertainties, the group director said, "throw further doubt on the wisdom of proceeding with industrial pit production at LANL."

"In any case, LANL's facilities are simply too old and inherently unsafe, its location too impractical," Mello continued. "Even with a much smaller stockpile, LANL could not undertake this mission successfully."

The U.S. has for years lacked the means to mass produce plutonium pits, cores or triggers at the heart of modern nuclear weapons. That's increasingly problematic, pit production supporters argue, as the nation's arsenal ages and slumps toward unreliable.

"This is an example where if we don't recapitalize the infrastructure, we will lose a key piece of what it means, what you have to have to be a nuclear weapons state," the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Adm. Charles Richard, recently told members of Congress. Many NNSA facilities are decades old.

To satisfy military demand for plutonium pits — a subject of much debate — the NNSA and the Department of Defense almost three years ago recommended jumpstarting production at Los Alamos, a plutonium center of excellence, and establishing it to the Savannah River Site, utilizing the footprint of a failed nuclear fuel plant, the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility.

At least 30 pits per year would be crafted in New Mexico, they counseled, and at least 50 pits per year would be crafted in South Carolina. Together, the reasoning goes, the legally required 80 pits per year would be achieved.

"If we are unable to meet 80 pits per year, the only alternative is to now start to accept pits that have aged past the point that we have a good analytical basis to have confidence in their operation," Richard told U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C. "We don't have data that says they will work. We don't have data that says they won't work. But if we don't reach 80 pits per year, we're going to, kind of, find out the hard way how that works out."

Building out pit production capabilities at both LANL and the Savannah River Site could cost $9 billion over a decade, according to a January 2019 analysis published by the Congressional Budget Office. A Government Accountability Office report in September 2020, citing the NNSA, offered other figures: Modernizing Los Alamos for pit production could cost up to $3 billion over the next five years, and bringing the sister facility at the Savannah River Site online could cost approximately $4.6 billion.

Wilson and other Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee have pressed the Biden administration to invest in nuclear modernization, an umbrella under which pit production falls.

"Now is the time to prioritize long-overdue investments required for the Department of Defense and the National Nuclear Security Administration," the lawmakers wrote in a March 23 letter to the president. "We have regrettably allowed much of our nuclear deterrent to atrophy."

The last place at which the nuclear weapon cores were produced en masse, the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, Colorado, was abandoned after a raid to investigate environmental crimes. Cleanup of the contaminated site began in the 1990s.

"I think it is useful for us to remember that this effort at pit production, I think, is the fourth or fifth attempt in our nation's history to reestablish it after we terminated pit production, back in 1992, at Rocky Flats," Richard said this month.