More study needed on nuclear pit production

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The agency that oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile says further study is needed to determine the best option for the United States as it looks to ramp up production of the plutonium cores that trigger nuclear weapons.

The National Nuclear Security Administration said Monday that a team of external and internal engineering experts will further analyze the two options that were identified as part of an earlier review that looked at the most efficient and cost effective means of making the pits.

Agency spokeswoman Lindsey Geisler told The Associated Press the options include leaving the work to Los Alamos National Laboratory or moving it to the U.S. Energy Department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

It’s not clear how long the extra analysis will take, but the agency said new pits must be made to ensure the nation’s nuclear forces are flexible and tailored to deter 21st-century threats.

Since news of the report surfaced Monday, New Mexico’s congressional delegation has been on the defensive.

Sen. Martin Heinrich’s office said Heinrich had already secured a commitment from Energy Secretary Rick Perry to maintain Los Alamos National Lab’s plutonium mission. The exchange on the commitment occurred during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in June on the U.S. Department of Energy’s budget and priorities.

Perry made the statement shortly after his May trip to New Mexico to tour Los Alamos National Laboratory and other New Mexico sites in the DOE’s nuclear enterprise. 

At the hearing, Heinrich asked Perry, “Is it also your intention that Los Alamos continue into the future to fill that important mission for the nation as was approved by the Nuclear Weapons Council?”
Perry answered in the affirmative.

On Sept. 20, members of the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Sens. Jack Reed, D-RI, and Chairman John McCain, R-AZ, told Perry that Los Alamos’ plutonium pit production needs to stay in Los Alamos.

“The AoA (Analysis of Alternatives) is rehashing decisions that have already been made, and it is putting the long-term plutonium capabilities of the United States at serious risk,’ said McCain and Reed, in the letter. “The delay in choosing an alternative, compounded with the delays inevitable if the NNSA should choose an alternative requiring relocation to another laboratory or construction of a ‘big box’ facility, will make it nearly impossible for NNSA to meet the statutory pit production requirements.

Northern New Mexico’s congressional delegation, which includes U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, CD-3, inserted an amendment into the annual National Defense Authorization Act that requires the NNSA’s analysis to be reviewed by the Nuclear Weapons Council to ensure it meets Pentagon requirements as far as cost, scheduling and capability.

“We have had concerns that the evaluation process undertaken by NNSA that led to this report was deeply flawed from the start,” a joint statement from Heinrich, Udall and Luján read. “The Pentagon’s independent cost accountability office conducted this same assessment in 2013 and concluded that Los Alamos is the only option to meet cost and schedule requirements. We would be deeply skeptical of any alternative that contradicts that independent assessment, and we will fight for full justification required by the most recent NDAA that will be signed into law any day now.”

Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Mick Rich was quick to criticize Heinrich for the current crisis.

“Political awareness would have led Sen. Heinrich to vote for the confirmation of Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, instead of against it. Sen. Udall has enough political sense to vote for Perry’s confirmation,” Rich said. “Now, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Jack Reed (D-RI) have written Secretary Perry to say that moving plutonium pit production from Los Alamos is putting the long-term plutonium capabilities of the United States at serious risk. Asking McCain to write this letter is Heinrich’s tacit acknowledgment that he has no influence with Secretary Perry.”

No new pits have been made since 2011. The Energy Department wants to ramp up production to 80 pits annually by 2030.