Federal defense bill includes study of options for LANL plutonium pits

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By Tris DeRoma

A defense authorization bill currently in the U.S. Senate for a final vote could have a lasting positive impact Los Alamos National Laboratory’s plutonium pit production.  

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, H.R. 5515, contains provisions that secures production of 30 plutonium pits by LANL by 2026.

In May, the National Nuclear Security Administration announced Los Alamos will produce 30 pits per year by 2026 and the Savannah River Site produce 50 plutonium pits a year by 2030.

H.R. 5515 solidifies Los Alamos’ role in the plan, and also includes a request for an independent review of the NNSA’s plutonium strategy. The independent review will consider the feasibility of LANL taking on the entire 80 plutonium pit quota through additional shifts of workers.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) has been critical of the NNSA’s plans for Los Alamos’ plutonium pit manufacturing program, especially the study the NNSA used to make its plutonium pit decision.

At the time of the study’s release, Heinrich criticized the NNSA’s study, saying the study ignored another alternative that allowed LANL to keep all the nuclear pit production at Los Alamos using modular construction techniques.

“Senator Heinrich continues to raise concern that halting the long-planned modular expansion of LANL’s facilities for plutonium pit production will set back our military’s life extension programs and stretch the lab’s existing facilities and workforce to its limits,” Heinrich’s spokeswoman, Whitney Potter said. 

Congress is expected to have the results of the independent review by April 15, 2019.

The bill also requests the Nuclear Weapons Council to track and certify the NNSA’s progress to fulfill the Department of Defense requirements of 80 pits a year by 2030.

Funding provisions in the bill also include $191.6 million for legacy cleanup up at LANL. Waste categorized as legacy waste is waste on the site from 1999 to the days of the Manhattan Project.

Greg Mello, the executive director of Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear and environmental safety organization based in Albuquerque, noted that the consideration of Los Alamos taking on the entire pit manufacturing program is a worrisome sign.

Mello said that although the military doesn’t like the idea of being solely dependent on Los Alamos, it might not have a choice, if the Savannah River Site can’t revamp its facility by 2030 to take on plutonium pit manufacturing. He said it appears the DOE wants to go back to the Manhattan Project days, when the lab was solely focused on military pursuits.

“They want new pits sooner rather than later, and Los Alamos is the only place that can provide them, so that’s why they want to ride Los Alamos hard,” Mello said.

“It’s a matter of General (Leslie) Groves coming back to Los Alamos.”