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Report: NNSA plan to build nuclear components at Los Alamos, Savannah River ‘potentially achievable’

April 20, 2019 GMT

A new federal report on the National Nuclear Security Administration’s plan to build nuclear weapons components at both Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina appears to accept the proposal, calling the two-site road map “potentially achievable.”

The report, delivered Tuesday to Congress, also said “sufficient time, resources, and management focus will be necessary” to accomplish the agency’s aggressive expansion of nuclear production in both states. A news release on the analysis said the plan was “comparable in costs” to other options considered, including doing all the work at Los Alamos.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, intends to produce at least 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030, a vast undertaking.

In May, the agency said 50 of these pits — the grapefruit-size fission cores used to trigger nuclear weapons — would be produced each year at a repurposed facility at the Savannah River Site, while the lab in Los Alamos would produce the remaining 30. This would be “the best way to manage the cost, schedule, and risk of such a vital undertaking,” the agency said.

However, the nation hasn’t produced even one war reserve pit in years, and the work will require significant infrastructure and management overhauls at both sites, which have struggled with safety issues.

The decision came after years of review on how the nation intends to scale up pit production.

In late 2017, a leaked federal analysis showed the cost of producing pits only at Los Alamos would be higher — and it would take longer for facilities there to be fully functional — than at other sites considered for the project. The document also cast doubt on whether the New Mexico lab ever will have the capacity to produce more than 30 pits per year.

At a House Armed Services Subcommittee hearing earlier this month, National Nuclear Security Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty again said producing 30 pits by 2026 in Los Alamos would be “really stretching their capabilities.”

In anticipation of the project, the Department of Energy requested $712 million for plutonium work in fiscal year 2020 — nearly double the previous budget.

The department’s request for plutonium work over the next five years totaled $5.67 billion.

Details were sparse in the part of the report released to the public, making it unclear what the study endorsed.

The analysis of the pit production plan was conducted by the not-for-profit Institute for Defense Analyses at a cost of $840,000 under the National Defense Authorization Act.

An assessment of a “recommended alternative,” also conducted by the institute, is expected to be released to Congress later this month, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Ellen Lord, under secretary of defense for Acquisition and Sustainment and chairwoman of the Nuclear Weapons Council, said in the news release on the report that the council had certified the plan “as the most viable option to meet military requirements.”

New Mexico’s congressional delegation has strongly advocated for keeping all pit production in Los Alamos.

During a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing last week, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., urged Energy Secretary Rick Perry to rethink the two-site plan. He testified that a National Nuclear Security Administration engineering report said the plan would cost twice as much as keeping all the work in Los Alamos.

And using the South Carolina facility to produce pits would send more high-level plutonium waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, he said, which would position the state to take more nuclear waste than it agreed to accept when the facility opened 20 years ago.

“More waste, higher costs and fewer jobs does not sound like a good deal,” Udall said.

The congressional delegates’ calls to keep the plutonium work in Los Alamos come despite numerous safety concerns, staff shortages and a work shutdown at the lab’s plutonium facility.

Early this year, an independent nuclear safety board said longstanding problems at the lab are unlikely to be resolved in less than five years.

Nuclear watchdogs also criticized the National Nuclear Security Administration for not publicly releasing a more detailed report on the high-risk work.

Some groups have filed lawsuits against the agency under the federal Freedom of Information Act, seeking to make more details of future pit production plans public. Some also have accused the agency of moving forward with the plans without conducting required environmental impact reviews.

The Department of Energy’s has a troubled history with pit production. During the Cold War, more than 100 pits were produced each year at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, but the facility was shuttered following an FBI raid in the late 1980s that found vast contamination — not only at the plant but at homes downwind of the facility.

There is ongoing concern that the condemned site, which was in part transformed into a national wildlife refuge, remains unsafe.

Gordon-Hagerty, who endorsed her agency’s plan, said in a statement, “No option is without risk.”