That’s enough to drop a bomb in every city in the world with more than 100,000 inhabitants and have a few nukes left over—you know, just in case the mutant cannibals on the charred planetary surface roam too close to the survival bunker.
Nearly half of America’s nuclear warheads are “operational,” or ready-to-fire. On top of those 5,113 operational and reserve warheads, as many as 4,500 retired warheads are sitting around, waiting to be taken apart.
In most of those weapons, the essential piece—the trigger for the deadly mushroom cloud—is known as the “plutonium pit.”
The government stores some 14,000 pits at a facility known as Pantex, along Interstate 40 in the Texas panhandle. At Pantex, pits are stacked floor to ceiling.
And yet, a few hundred miles up the road, government contractors have begun moving earth for a multibillion-dollar project that will enable production of up to 200 new plutonium pits a year at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The great unanswered question is why?
Within that question, there are several smaller whys:
1. Why have plans for new pit production at LANL attracted so little local attention, considering the disastrous environmental legacy of the country’s last pit production facility, at Rocky Flats in Colorado?
2. Why, given the well-publicized dangers of an earthquake at LANL, does the government want to build an expanded plutonium lab on the same fault line [Cover story, June 30: “What’s Next?”]?
3. Why does the government need new plutonium pits when it has so many in reserve, and when President Barack Obama speaks of “a world without nuclear weapons?”
Despite at least 10 public forums on the new facility, clear answers aren’t coming from LANL or the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the lab.
A LANL spokesman did not return a cell phone message. In an email to SFR, NNSA spokeswoman Jennifer Wagner declines comment on future pit production “because that information is classified.”
This story was pieced together through interviews with anti-nuclear activists and a review of documents from the NNSA, the Defense Department and Congress.
Now, about those whys:
1. Why so few headlines?
LANL works hard to manage public perceptions.
The basic strategy is revealed in an undated PowerPoint presentation on “techniques for the effective spokesperson” by LANL spokesman Kevin Roark. Among Roark’s listed goals: “Maintaining control over story content.”
So far, the lab’s public relations tactics have worked. The language around the new project is, at its worst, an impenetrable acronym soup. At best, the language is euphemistic; officials take pains to avoid the words “plutonium pits,” “warheads” and “weapons.”
Instead, they talk about construction jobs and attracting “the newest and brightest minds,” as LANL Deputy Director Ike Richardson was quoted as saying in the Journal Santa Fe last month.
The euphemisms extend to the name of the project itself: the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement project.
In repeated public appearances, NNSA and LANL officials downplay CMRR’s weapons role, noting that it will not be a pit manufacturing facility. Strictly speaking, that’s true—the pits will be manufactured in another building nearby. But it’s also misleading, because without CMRR, there would be no new pits.
A November 2007 report by the non-profit Institute for Defense Analyses, commissioned by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, explains the connection between CMRR and the future nuclear arsenal:
“Applied chemical and metallurgical research capabilities are crucial to…pit manufacturing,” the report says. “The CMRR-NF [nuclear facility] is central to the discussion of pit production capabilities at TA-55,” or Los Alamos Technical Area 55, where pits are now manufactured.
2. Why build on a fault line?
To save money.
As its name suggests, CMRR will replace the lab’s existing Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility at the same location, which dates from the 1950s. This year, for safety reasons, the old CMR will lose its authorization to operate.
LANL is the most cost-effective site for future pit production in the nation’s nuclear complex, according to the IDA report.
Other alternatives for pit production—including sites in Georgia, Nevada or Texas—would’ve cost up to $21 billion, the IDA report says.
Be that as it may, NNSA has been unable to provide solid figures to Congress regarding how much CMRR will cost.
Citing “LANL personnel,” the IDA report says “an investment of about $500 million would be needed to maintain a reliable pit production capability at the current level.” CMRR promises even greater pit production, for a cost that has ballooned to $4 billion, according to Obama administration estimates.
The nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group, which is preparing a lawsuit to stop CMRR, believes the project will cost even more, and divert funds from more worthy endeavors.
“This $4 billion is coming out of renewable energy projects in the state,” LASG Operations Director Trish Williams-Mello tells SFR. “Instead of transitioning away from coal, we’re going to be dependant on coal because we won’t have the money to build renewable infrastructure.”
3. Why new pits?
Whoever knows isn’t saying.
In 2007, LANL successfully produced the country’s first new plutonium pits since Rocky Flats’ 1992 closure following a raid by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
LANL now has the capacity to produce 10 to 20 pits a year. With the closure of the old CMR facility this year, that capacity will vanish—at least until the expected completion of CMRR in 2022.
Government scientists estimate most plutonium pits are good for at least 100 years. Since America produced most of its pits in the 1980s, the existing stockpile will likely outlast the expected 50-year life of CMRR.
Nevertheless, the IDA report anticipates a “future pit production requirement [of] 125 per year, with a surge capability of 200.”
Granted, the report was written before Obama took office. But CMRR, a $4 billion-and-counting project that is “central” to new pit production—whether it be 20 or 200 a year—lumbers ahead, with his administration’s blessing.
NNSA’s Wagner says CMRR is an administration priority “because of the need to modernize our infrastructure” to certify the effectiveness of the nuclear stockpile without live weapons tests.
In April, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev struck a deal to reduce deployed warheads to 1,550 on each side. Congress has yet to ratify that treaty, known as New Start.
While the treaty would reduce the overall number of deployed nukes, it wouldn’t prohibit the development of new types of weapons.
“Where the wiggle room comes in,” LASG Executive Director Greg Mello says, is where the government plans “to add new features to the arsenal, of any kind.”
A pit designed for one type of weapon cannot be reliably reused in a new, untested weapon. So new pits produced with the help of CMRR could enable the development of nuclear weapons that are larger, smaller or more maneuverable than those in the current arsenal.
Also in the Journal last month, NNSA Site Manager Don Winchell said CMRR will not be designing “fancy new weapons.”
But given the project’s skyrocketing costs and lack of a clear, non-military research objective, activists say the making of fancy new weapons is the only explanation for CMRR that makes sense.
It’s also the most likely answer to that big, $4 billion question: Why?