NNSA announces decision on pit production

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Los Alamos National Laboratory will share production of plutonium pits with the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, the Nuclear Weapons Council and National Nuclear Security Administration announced Thursday.

LANL will maintain production of 30 plutonium pits per year, while the Savannah River Site will produce 50 pits per year.

“To achieve DoD’s 80 pits per year requirement by 2030, NNSA’s recommended alternative repurposes the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to produce plutonium pits while also maximizing pit production activities at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico,” according to Thursday’s release.

“This two-prong approach – with at least 50 pits per year produced at Savannah River and at least 30 pits per year at Los Alamos – is the best way to manage the cost, schedule, and risk of such a vital undertaking,” said Ellen M. Lord, the under secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment and the chair of the NWC, and Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty, the Department of Energy under secretary for Nuclear Security and the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration. She is a member of the NWC.

The NNSA said by keeping LANL as the nation’s plutonium center for research and development, the recommended alternative “improves the resiliency, flexibility, and redundancy of our Nuclear Security Enterprise by not relying on a single production site.”

LANL Director Terry Wallace lauded the NNSA’s decision and the Nuclear Weapon Council’s endorsement of the decision to maintain pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“We are gratified by the NNSA and Department of Defense decision to continue full-scale production of plutonium pits at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and to create a surge capability at the Laboratory of up to 80 pits per year,” Wallace said. “In reaffirming the laboratory’s status as the nation’s Plutonium Center of R&D Excellence, the NNSA has given the laboratory a big vote of confidence today.”

Wallace also said the statement also speaks to core of the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s core mission of maintaining the nation’s nuclear stockpile.

Plutonium pits are the size of a softball and are used as trigger mechanisms for nuclear weapons.

“This commitment by the government to expand our plutonium mission reiterates the critical role we play in ensuring the nation’s security – and pit manufacturing is central to that,” Wallace said. “We have been called upon to serve the nation, which we will do in the same tradition of excellence that has defined our contributions for the last 75 years.”  

The NNSA was given a mandate by Congress to manufacture 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030 as part of a nuclear weapons modernization plan. The NNSA has been studying which site would best be able to accommodate the manufacture of plutonium pits.

Los Alamos County Council Chair David Izraelevitz said he was glad that pit production will continue in Los Alamos County.

“I think it’s a wise decision to have multiple locations, so that we can have the full production requirement that has been stated in the military requirements for pit production,” Izraelevitz said. “It’s consistent with the resolution council passed a few moths ago supporting our current efforts.”

Izraelevitz said that the decision works on a scientific and historical level.

“It makes a lot of sense given that we are a center of excellence for plutonium science that most of the production would occur here,” Izraelevitz said. “I’m sure the scientists and engineers here in Los Alamos will work closely with those at Savannah River to use all the material scientific expertise that we have.”

Nuclear Watch New Mexico criticized the decision as purely political.

“First, in Nuclear Watch’s view, this decision is in large part a political decision, designed to keep the congressional delegations of both New Mexico and South Carolina happy,” said Nuclear Watch Executive Director Jay Coghlan. “New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are adamantly against relocating plutonium pit production to South Carolina. On the other hand, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham was keeping the boondoggle Mixed Oxide (MOX) program on life support, and this pit production decision may help to mollify him.

Coghlan said he believes the split plan will ultimately fail.

"NNSA has already tried four times to expand plutonium pit production, only to be defeated by citizen opposition and its own cost overruns and incompetence,” Coghlan said. “But we realize that this fifth attempt is the most serious.

"However, we remain confident it too will fall apart, because of its enormous financial and environmental costs and the fact that expanded plutonium pit production is simply not needed for the existing nuclear weapons stockpile. We think the American public will reject new-design nuclear weapons, which is what this expanded pit production decision is really all about.”

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, took a more pragmatic view.

“NNSA’s decision appears to be a rational one within the limits of existing law,” Mello said. “LANL can’t handle the industrial mission and there was always going to be an overlap between small pit production at LANL and the establishment of any new production site.”

Mello also noted that eventually, due to the predicted lifespan of the current plutonium pits and manufacturing limitation, pit manufacturing will eventually leave LANL.

“Pit production isn’t needed for decades, even for a large arsenal, but Congress has demanded it, so the bulk of the work will leave LANL. The R and D (research and development) work will stay behind. This transition is many years down the road. Pit production will always be difficult, expensive and dangerous wherever it’s done.”

A fact sheet about the decision can be found here.