Source: Amarillo Globe News | Aaron Davis | January 24, 2016
A nuclear safety agency has reported the federal Department of Energy recently approved plans to ramp up production of plutonium “pits,” the core that that triggers nuclear weapons, at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which could lead to more warhead refurbishment work at the Pantex Plant northeast of Amarillo.
The plans include a big increase in plutonium capacity at an existing facility at Los Alamos and new laboratory space for pit production, part of plans to get pit production up and rolling.
The changes were the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a Congressional oversight agency, and follow directives from the Department of Defense and Congress to increase pit production for upgrades the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.
Lab watchdogs in New Mexico question the DOE’s plans to make more of the nuclear triggers.
“Expanded plutonium pit production at the Los Alamos Lab is really all about future new-design nuclear weapons with new military capabilities produced through so-called Life Extension Programs for existing nuclear weapons,” said Nuclear Watch Director Jay Coghlan.
“The real irony is that this Interoperable Warhead has been delayed for at least five years, if not forever, because of its enormous estimated expense and Navy skepticism. Yet this doesn’t keep Los Alamos and the (National Nuclear Security Administration) from spending billions of taxpayer dollars … for unnecessary and provocative expanded plutonium pit production.”
Plutonium pit production is the chokepoint that prevents industrial-scale U.S. nuclear weapons production, Nuclear Watch said. This has been the case since the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado was shut down after an FBI raid investigating environmental crimes there in 1989. During the Cold War, as many as 2,000 pits per year were made at Rocky Flats.
Only 29 pits have been made since Rocky Flats — all at Los Alamos from 2007 to 2011 — for replacement in submarine-launched ballistic warheads.
The number of plutonium pits will go from an approved level of 20 pits per year up to 80, Coghlan said.
According to the Fiscal Year 2016 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, the plutonium strategy will “support the ramp-up to a war reserve production capacity of 50 to 80 plutonium pits per year by FY 2030.”
The NNSA issued an official statement in response to questions on the plutonium pit production.
“NNSA continues to pursue a plutonium strategy that optimizes existing facilities and addresses future program needs to create a responsive infrastructure,” said Francie M. Israeli, NNSA press secretary. “The FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act states that a modern, responsive infrastructure, which includes the capability to produce up to 50 to 80 pits per year, is a national security priority.”
However, the need for war reserve capacity is questioned by some.
“In reality, no stockpile pits have been manufactured since 2011, and none are currently scheduled, to us illustrating the lack of true need for any pit production to begin with,” Coghlan said. “Future production would be for W87 pits for the Interoperable Warhead that would be a combined W78 and W97 warhead. But again, the IW has been delayed for 5 years, which bureaucratically could mean its death, especially given lack of Navy support.”
The W87 warhead will be crafted from old W78 and W88 warheads in a new direction for the country’s nuclear weapons policy.
In 2010, the Obama Administration wrote in aNuclear Posture Review report that the United States will not develop new nuclear warheads and will only use life extension programs to replace existing components, refurbish existing warheads and reuse nuclear components from different warheads.
However, a new program called the “3+2” program will begin modifying the 7 types of warheads in the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal into three new “interoperable” ballistic missile warheads and two air-delivered weapons.
The NNSA plans to use insensitive high explosives in the interoperable warheads. Such explosives are less prone to accidental detonation than conventional high explosives, but take up more space inside a warhead.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has said since the weapons would be combining different stages from different bombs, the reliability of the new weapons would be in question without proper testing.
The NNSA said that it has computer models that would not require the US to test the new warheads.
“Even absent a resumption of nuclear testing, building new warhead types would send the wrong message to the rest of the world,” the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in an October report.