Future of Plutonium Pit Production at Los Alamos

Albuquerque is that place Bugs Bunny should’ve taken a left turn. Most of us know it as such but for those interested in nuclear weapons The Albuquerque Journal is always a must read rag.

Where else can you get good articles on plutonium pits, like this one on plutonium pit production at Los Alamos?

The Albuquerque Journal reports on public comments made by James McConnell, the NNSA’s associate administrator for safety, infrastructure and operations, indicating that pit production, the US has not manufactured pits since 2011, could be shifted from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

McConnell’s comments – possibly the first time that the option of moving plutonium operations away from LANL has been broached publicly by federal officials – came in the context of 4½ hours of discussion of risks and safety issues at PF-4 or, as the safety board’s agenda for Wednesday’s meeting put it, “the adequacy and status of safety systems to support current and long-term operations.”

These comments were made at a meeting of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board in Santa Fe. Safety at defence and defence related nuclear facilities was brought to wide spread attention recently with the collapse of a tunnel housing radioactive waste at Hanford. Los Alamos has also experienced safety related incidents involving the handling of plutonium.

As noted at Wednesday’s meeting, LANL in 2016 was the only one of the Department of Energy’s nuclear facilities to receive a failing “red” safety rating in the area of “criticality,” or prevention of nuclear chain reactions that could lead to radiation releases.

The article has some interesting detail. For instance, the most plutonium pits produced at Los Alamos in a year is 11. Under current nuclear weapons modernisation plans, which include production facility modernisation not just bomb and missile modernisation, it is envisaged by 2030 the US will have the capability of producing 50 to 80 plutonium pits a year.

The article features a photo of Greg Mello, who founded the Los Alamos Study group, a noted nuclear activist, in attendance at the meeting. Mello helped me with my Master’s thesis; he forwarded me documents that provided empirical support for my argument. He is the type of citizen scientist we need if we are to safely navigate our way through, and out, of the nuclear age.

The big question about the future of plutonium pit production is why expand production capacity in the first place? The Albuquerque Journal nicely finishes with reference to this question

Critics of the lab contend there is no need to make new pits for nuclear weapons and say that parts of the military don’t even want the planned new weapons that new pit production would serve.

You can bet your better dollar that was a reference to Mello.