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NNSA’s pit decision restores confidence in local economy

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By Tris DeRoma

Local and laboratory officials expressed optimism and relief following the decision by the National Nuclear Security Administration to include the Los Alamos National Laboratory in its plutonium pit manufacturing program.

An internal memo from Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Terry Wallace Jr. to employees Thursday and obtained by the Los Alamos Monitor indicated the lab is looking forward to a brighter future.

“Let me be clear about how I interpret this decision: I believe NNSA has given the Laboratory a big vote of confidence today,” Wallace wrote to employees. “They are investing an additional $3 billion in new mission space, which includes people, infrastructure, and equipment. This is a significant opportunity to continue contributing to the nation’s security by drawing on our unique expertise in plutonium science.”

Wallace also said the NNSA’s vote of confidence means LANL will remain at the center of plutonium pit manufacturing for years to come as it helps the Savannah River Site to develop it’s own plutonium pit manufacturing facility and workforce.

“As the nation’s R&D Plutonium Center of Excellence, Los Alamos will be expected to be involved in the design of a next-generation plutonium processing facility, conducting development activities for new manufacturing methods, and assisting in training a new plutonium workforce,” Wallace said. “I want to highlight this last point. The nation will look to us to help train the Savannah River Site workforce as National Nuclear Security Administration brings up this new capability. I expect our workforce will draw on our rich history of training and our ability to transfer knowledge to help our partners in South Carolina.”

The NNSA’s decision also assures that the northern New Mexico region’s economic future is assured as well.

Lab employees interviewed about the decision predicted that the lab will need to at the very least, hire hundreds of new employees over the next few years as the lab works toward the NNSA’s goal of 30 pits a year by 2030.

Local officials were encouraged to hear of Thursday’s decision.

The county is continuing to wait for the NNSA’s decision regarding who will  manage and operate the laboratory, another decision that will either mean the loss of millions of dollars in gross receipts tax revenues to the local economy or gains of millions of dollars. If the NNSA picks a non-profit contract, the county may loose an estimated $20 million a year in gross receipt tax revenues.

However, the NNSA’s announcement Thursday was a welcome sign.

“I think it’s a positive announcement that will be beneficial to our local economy, in that we won’t be losing present mission,” Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess said, who was also glad to hear from conversations with NNSA officials Thursday that the lab will be expanding infrastructure at the LANL as it ramps up production of the plutonium pits.

“That is something we’ve been lobbying for in Washington, D.C., for several years,” Burgess said.

Members of the Los Alamos County Council were glad to hear its efforts paid off. In February, during a time when a leaked study by the NNSA showed it was considering the Savannah River Site as a possible sole option, council passed a resolution in support of keeping the LANL’s plutonium pit manufacturing facility in Los Alamos.

Los Alamos County Councilor and 43rd District state representative candidate Pete Sheehey also said they did it because other community’s like Santa Fe, were passing resolutions to have the NNSA take plutonium pit manufacturing out of Los Alamos County.

“We wanted Washington to know that this county supports the work of the lab,” Sheehey said. “We expect it to be done safely and responsibly, but it’s an important job for the nation. Council was unanimously in support of that.”

Sheehey also noted that the lab’s initial expansion plans alone would bring much needed jobs and economic activity to the region.

He was also relieved, however, that the NNSA is keeping the output at the lab to 30 plutonium pits per year.

“If they wanted to build more than that, there is a question of how much we could locally handle,” Sheehey said.

He also thought there still may be a chance to bring more pit manufacturing to New Mexico, though the federal government has invested billions of dollars in the Savannah River Site already. He said that, provided a community lent its overwhelming support to the project, there’s no reason a similar plutonium pit manufacturing facility couldn’t be built in southern New Mexico, where a lot of other nuclear facilities are already located.

“Though billions of dollars have been spent there, the billions of dollars that have been spent were not to build a pit production facility,” Sheehey said. “…It’s possible to build a pit production facility from the ground up in (southern New Mexico). It would be actually less expensive than refurbishing everything they’ve built at Savannah River to make pits there,” Sheehey said.

Sheehey also noted there’s still disagreement in Washington whether 80 pits per year is really needed.

“There are many that feel that what Los Alamos can produce, which is up to 30 pits, is plenty to maintain the stockpile,” Sheehey said.

Los Alamos County’s congressional delegation also welcomed the news, but were disappointed that the NNSA also didn’t consider modernizing Los Alamos National Laboratory’s infrastructure using  a modular approach, a plan that Sen. Martin Heinrich, Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan strongly endorsed, especially during the time the leak of the NNSA’s study.

“While we are pleased that Los Alamos National Laboratory will remain the Research & Development Plutonium Center of Excellence and will be allowed to expand their plutonium pit production capability with a new multi-billion investment, 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,” a joint statement from the congressional delegation said.