Albuquerque Journal

New nuke equipment cleared for Los Alamos

But nuclear agency says new equipment isn’t needed for nuclear pits


The U.S. agency in charge of producing key components for the nation’s nuclear arsenal has cleared the way for new equipment to be installed at Los Alamos National Laboratory as part of a multibilli­on-dollar mission, but nuclear watchdog groups say the project already is behind schedule and budgets have ballooned.

Approval for moving equipment into place at Los Alamos National Laboratory was first outlined in an internal memo issued by the deputy secretary of energy in January. The National Nuclear Security Administra­tion, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy, made a public announceme­nt Thursday.

The work will include the design, fabricatio­n and installati­on of glove boxes and other special equipment needed to make the plutonium cores. The work will be split between Los Alamos in northern New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, with the locations facing a congressio­nal mandate to make at least 80 of the cores each year by 2030.

The deadline for meeting that capacity has been pushed back, with the memo being the latest evidence that the minimum equipment necessary will be in place at Los Alamos by August 2030, or four years later than expected.

The nuclear agency contends that installati­on of the equipment isn’t necessary for Los Alamos to produce 30 pits per year, and that the lab will be building war reserve pits using existing equipment as the project proceeds.

Agency spokeswoma­n Shayela Hassan said in an email to The Associated Press that the NNSA expects an increasing number of pits to be produced each subsequent year until the new equipment is installed. She said that’s when the capability will be in place to produce 30 pits each year “with moderate


The long-shuttered Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver was capable of producing more than 1,000 war reserve pits annually before work stopped in 1989 due to environmen­tal and regulatory concerns. In 1996, the DOE provided for limited production capacity at Los Alamos, which produced its first war reserve pit in 2007. The lab stopped operations in 2012 after producing what was needed at the time.

Greg Mello, director of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, said the NNSA has made contradict­ory statements about the delays and what they mean for the overall plutonium pit project. He pointed to NNSA statements in 2017 and 2018 in which the agency predicted problems if it were producing pits while also replacing glove boxes and other equipment at the same time.

“There is more they aren’t saying,” Mello said. “We believe NNSA and LANL will struggle mightily, with further setbacks, failures and accidents in a misguided attempt to produce any meaningful number of pits in that cramped, aging facility.”

The memo provides formal cost and schedule estimates for getting equipment in place at Los Alamos, but it’s unclear when constructi­on will begin. The cost has been pegged at roughly $1.85 billion.

More details about spending and schedules are expected when the NNSA submits its budget request to Congress next month.

In January, the Government Accountabi­lity Office said in a report that NNSA plans for reestablis­hing plutonium pit production do not follow best practices and run the risk of delays and cost overruns.

The GAO described the modernizat­ion effort as the agency’s largest investment in weapons production infrastruc­ture to date, noting that plutonium is a dangerous material and making the weapon cores is difficult and time consuming.

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