Pits: Future of Nuclear Warhead Cores

The Los Alamos Study Group has been a public interest research organization for decades, reporting on the nuclear and related activities of the US National Energy Lab in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Over the years, the mission of Los Alamos Lab and the management of this multi-billion dollar site, perched on a high mesa under one of the largest ancient volcanoes, has changed to meet the demands of the times. The core mission has stayed the same. The assembled scientists and engineers, who’ve come to be referred to as “nuclear priests”,  are “stewards” of the nuclear weapons complex. Their services are a national top secret, they are funded with hundreds of billions of dollars. The US nuclear weapons, which were conceived at Los Alamos, continue to grow and evolve into new forms with new capabilities. The latest incarnations of weapons are envisaged as a 20 year trillion dollar plus expansion and “modernization”. The new spending and next generation ‘smarter’ nuclear weapons are more accurate, more usable, and are sparking a response by Russia and China. A “new nuclear arms race“, announced last week in Congress is underway and the future is one of proliferation.

The work of Los Alamos grows increasingly dangerous even as today, in New York, the United Nations Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review meeting of nations meets to discuss nonproliferation. Dangerous policies of proliferation, not nonproliferation, are pushing forward with near-future nuclear weapon deployments. At the core are pits, nuclear pits, and plans for more pits, needed or not.

StratDem looks at yesterday’s Bulletin of the Los Alamos Group, which begins to capture the depth of the nuclear challenge, as spending drives modernization and new missions, which in turn produce a chain-reaction in nuclear weapons policies and escalation in an increasingly multilateral world.

nuclear symbol_

May 18, 2015

Bulletin 205: Congressional study shows multibillion-dollar underground factory “modules” for plutonium not needed at Los Alamos

Every single attempt to build a new industrial plutonium facility for making warhead cores (“pits”) in the U.S. has been a failure since Building 371 opened at the Rocky Flats Plant in 1981, only to permanently shut down three years later.

The usual Department of Energy (DOE)/National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) pattern has been to spend an outrageous sum attempting to plan, design, and/or construct some brand-new, highly-touted project, stumble (or be tripped), and then pull the plug. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) counts seven such failures (so far). We count eight. In any case it’s been a “Sisyphean” struggle for DOE and NNSA, in CRS’s language.

A root cause of all this failure has been a perennial failure to understand that such a facility has never been needed. On each of these occasions, ideology, ambition, and greed have temporarily overcome sound judgment and realism, a story which continues to the present day. 

Section 3112 of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act directs NNSA to ramp up pit production to 80 pits per year for at least a 90-day period in 2027, despite the fact that all the pits in the stockpile will last decades longer.  (It’s about new warheads, in case you were wondering, the so-called “interoperable warheads;” see references here.) The previous year, Section 3117 of the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act (law; LASG pressrelease and explanation) required that NNSA complete and achieve, also by 2027, full operating capability in at least two “modular structures” to “complement the function of the plutonium facility (PF–4) at LANL (assuming the troubled Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility, CMRR-NF, was not completed). Well, CMRR-NF was cancelled. That leaves “two or more” underground “modular structures” as the present program of record.

This is an expensive plan, $4.3 billion in up-front capital cost alone, not counting actual operation, waste management, overhead of all kinds, and eventual decommissioning and disposal. The two “modules” are estimated to cost roughly $2.2 billion, or more than half of this, or $220,000 per square foot. They would be the most expensive interior real estate space in the world.

Leaving aside for the moment the long list of nested prior questions that must be asked, such as why does the U.S. “need” a new ICBM warhead,
or a new submarine-launched warhead that the Navy itself really isn’t interested in? Or why does the U.S. need to have so many “hedge” warheads (fewer would mean pit production wasn’t necessary), or so many ICBMs? Why have ICBMs at all? Why does the U.S. not decrease
its stockpile to the level the military agreed was more than enough 2013 – one-third less – again obviating pit production for the foreseeable future and saving billions in new construction? (Of course for many in Congress and the White House, spending money in this way, via these particular contractors in the case of New Mexico’s senators and representatives, is the plan.)

Leaving aside a great deal of common sense, then (but in fidelity to the pit production requirement that has been written into law) CRS has been tackling the question of how to ramp up pit production in a series of reports (all found here). “Nuclear Weapon “Pit” Production: Options to Help Meet a Congressional Requirement” (May 15, 2015) is the most recent. Congress will find it accessible, and timely. Our press release on this (“Los Alamos-Supported Congressional Study Suggests Efficiency Improvements for Plutonium Warhead “Pit” Manufacturing”) was sent out today.

Los Alamos Study Press Release, May 18, 2015