Report casts doubt on future of LANL pit production

Cost of a new facility in N.M. could be as high as $7.5B; feds consider alternatives in Idaho, South Carolina


A complex nuclear weapons project long expected to move forward at Los Alamos National Laboratory could end up being more costly and taking longer to execute at the lab than at other sites, according to details leaked this week from a federal report that hasn't been publicly released.

The National Nuclear Security Administration told Congress in early November that it aspires to have the infrastructure and ability to build 10 war-ready plutonium pits per year by 2024 and between 50 and 80 pits per year by 2030 to maintain "the safety, security, and effectiveness of the nuclear stockpile over the next 25 years."

But a leaked document from the agency shows that construction of a facility able to produce 80 pits per year at Los Alamos would cost between $1.9 billion and $7.5 billion -- and it might not be running at that production rate until 2038.

That would put the project nearly a decade behind schedule and would cost over half a billion dollars more than if the project were moved to another site.

The release of the full report, assessing Los Alamos' ability to handle the pit production mission and comparing it with capabilities at other sites, has been delayed for months and has yet to be made public.

U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, D-N.M., co-sponsored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2018, a bill passed earlier this month, compelling the National Nuclear Security Administration to release the report within 30 days after the president signs the bill into law. U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján also supported the amendment.

Heinrich's amendment further says that if the report is not released and assessed within five months, pit production will move forward at Los Alamos.

Staff members of the House Committee on Armed Services were briefed Thursday by the National Nuclear Security Administration on the details of the report, according to Eric Olsen, a spokesman for Democratic U.S. Rep. John Garamendi of California, a committee member.

Olsen said the agency has completed an analysis of alternatives and has begun to consider options.

The document obtained by The New Mexican indicates that the federal agency's assessment does not favor the New Mexico lab.

Building a new facility at Idaho National Laboratory, the agency estimates, would not cost more than $6.9 billion, and relocating the project to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina would not exceed $6.7 billion -- almost

$1 billion less than constructing the facility at Los Alamos.

The National Nuclear Security Administration also compared the costs of building a new facility at each of the three sites with the costs of refurbishing existing structures at Idaho and Savannah River. Refurbishment would top out at $5.4 billion and could be complete between two and four years earlier, the document says.

The document shows the agency also compared the risks and opportunities for each site. But the project risks at the Los Alamos lab have been redacted.

Risks involved with refurbishing facilities for the project at Savannah River or Idaho include a lack of pit production experience, potential scheduling delays, structural issues and a need for nuclear agency oversight changes, according to the document. It also states that both the Idaho and South Carolina sites could have "potentially contentious state government."

The benefit of moving forward at Los Alamos would be experienced pit production techs, the document says.

Savannah River has the benefit of ample space to expand facilities for the project and, like Los Alamos, has on-site National Nuclear Security Administration staff.

Some New Mexico lawmakers took issue with the report's conclusions.

"We have had concerns that the evaluation process undertaken by NNSA that led to this report was deeply flawed from the start," New Mexico's Democratic congressional delegates said in a joint statement.

"The Pentagon's independent cost accountability office conducted this same assessment in 2013 and concluded that Los Alamos is the only option to meet cost and schedule requirements," the congressmen said. "We would be deeply skeptical of any alternative that contradicts that independent assessment, and we will fight for full justification required by the most recent NDAA that will be signed into law any day now."

Whitney Potter, a spokeswoman for Heinrich, said a belief that the National Nuclear Security Administration's assessment was flawed compelled the congressmen to introduce an amendment to the defense bill that addressed the report, including requiring the Nuclear Weapons Council to review it.

Luján and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, both Democrats, supported the amendment, she said.

The full report is expected to offer the most complete picture yet of the risks of increasing pit production at Los Alamos, said Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group.

Mello said the "reality of what pit production would mean at Los Alamos has started to sink in."

"Some of the inherent problems are now visible in a way they weren't visible 20 years ago, or 10 years ago, or even two years," he said.

The project has faced increased scrutiny this year.

In June, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent advisory panel, held a hearing in Santa Fe with lab and U.S. Department of Energy officials over the lab's ability to handle ramped-up pit production. Issues were raised about holes in staffing and training at Los Alamos and aging infrastructure, as well as trouble managing increasing quantities of nuclear materials required to make the pits.

Questions also have been raised about the ability of the plutonium facility at the lab to withstand a seismic event and whether fire safety systems would function correctly if an earthquake occurred.

An investigative series of reports by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit news organization, found that the lab had a number of near misses at its plutonium facility in recent years related to pit production, including an event in 2011 that could have led to an explosion and the death of nearby workers.

The incident, in which nuclear engineers lined up several rods of plutonium dangerously close together, led to an exodus of qualified staff from the department and a pause in operations at the plutonium facility for nearly four years.

Los Alamos restarted pit production in late 2015 but has yet to produce a war reserve pit.

It also was the nation's only weapons site to fail a safety review last year of a federal safety program meant to prevent a runaway nuclear reaction. In August, lab workers again violated this program when they placed an excess of plutonium in the same room and failed to discover the violation for several days.