Report details pit options

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By The Staff

Apparently, Jonathan Medalia’s lecture at the Nuclear Deterrence Summit in Washington two weeks ago was just the appetizer.
This week, the Los Alamos Monitor obtained a 90-page report, titled U.S. Nuclear Weapon Pit Production Options for Congress, written by Medalia, a specialist in Nuclear Weapons Policy for the Congressional Research Service in Washington.
Front and center in the report is the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
First a little history — until 1989, the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado mass-produced plutonium pits and since then the United States has made at most 11 pits per year.
The report said, “U.S. policy is to maintain existing nuclear weapons. To do this, the Department of Defense states that it needs the Department of Energy (DOE), which maintains U.S. nuclear weapons, to produce 50-80 ppy by 2030.
“While some argue that few if any new pits are needed, at least for decades, this report focuses on options to reach 80 ppy. Pit production involves precisely forming plutonium — a hazardous, radioactive, physically quirky metal. Production requires supporting tasks, such as analytical chemistry (AC), which monitors the chemical composition of plutonium in each pit.”
With Rocky Flats closed, DOE established a small-scale pit manufacturing capability at PF-4, a building at LANL. DOE also proposed higher-capacity facilities; none came to fruition. In 2005, Congress rejected the Modern Pit Facility, viewing excessive the capacity range DOE studied, 125-450 ppy.
Then in 2012, the Obama administration “deferred” construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility at LANL on grounds of availability of interim alternatives and affordability. Reports suggest that more than $500 million already had been used in the design of CMRR and cost estimates to complete the project were more than $5 billion.
In his report, Medalia examines the remaining options.
And, ironically, his first option is to build CMRR-NF. But in his report, he said, “Congress mandated it in the FY2013 cycle, but provided no funds for it then, and permitted consideration of an alternative in the FY2014 cycle.”
Here are other options:
• Remove from PF-4 tasks not requiring high Material At Risk and security. Casting pits uses much plutonium that an accident might release MAR and requires high security. Making 80 ppy would require freeing more MAR and floor space in PF-4 for casting.
• Provide regulatory relief so RLUOB could hold 1,000 grams of plutonium with few changes to the building.
Medalia said the analytical chemistry (AC) for 80 ppy needs much floor space but not high MAR or high security.
• Move plutonium-238 work to Idaho National Laboratory or Savannah River
• Build concrete “modules” connected to PF-4. “This would enable high-MAR work to move out of PF-4, so PF-4 and modules could do the needed pit work. At issue: are modules needed, at what cost, and when. Several options have the potential to produce 80 ppy and permit other plutonium activities at relatively modest cost, in a relatively short time, with no new buildings, and with minimal environmental impact. Determining their desirability and feasibility would require detailed study.
Medalia then offered the following observations.
• Differing time horizons between Congress and DOE, and between political and technical imperatives, cause problems.
• Doing nothing entails costs and risks. Keeping a 1950s-era building open while options are explored exposes workers to a relatively high risk of death in an earthquake.
• Congress may wish to consider limiting a building’s permitted plutonium quantity by estimated dose instead of MAR. A facility can be safe even if it is not compliant with regulations.
• The political system is more flexible than the regulatory system. Regulations derive their authority from statutes. Regulators, bound by these statutes, cannot make cost-benefit tradeoffs regarding compliance.
Medalia received consulting help in his report from Los Alamos National Laboratory officials and members of the Los Alamos Study Group.
LASG’s Greg Mello said, “National issues aside, here in New Mexico it is often jobs and economic development that most concern decisionmakers and journalists.
“Plutonium lies at the heart of LANL’s mission. It is LANL’s most irreducible program, the one not fully duplicated anywhere else. It requires long-lasting infrastructure decisions and they affect not just environmental impacts and risks but also the identity and economic development potential of region.
“That is why this report is so important to northern New Mexico. It tells us we need not suffer an expansion of plutonium infrastructure at LANL, even under the most obsolete, hawkish assumptions.
Look for more of Medalia’s report in future editions of the Los Alamos Monitor.