Los Alamos laboratory could face increased demand for plutonium wells | Local News
The plutonium-well plant at the Savannah River site in South Carolina will take years longer and cost billions of dollars more to scale up than expected, potentially pushing the Los Alamos National Laboratory to manufacture more nuclear bomb cores to fill the void, watch groups say.
Over the past three years, plans were for the Los Alamos lab to produce 30 plutonium warhead triggers by 2026 and for Savannah River to make 50 by 2030, but the latter turns out to be much more expensive and boring than expected.
Jill Hruby, the candidate for the National Nuclear Security Administration, told a U.S. Senate hearing last week that Savannah River may not be fully functional until 2035.
And a recently released budget proposal for the country’s nuclear weapons program through 2022 shows the estimated cost of converting the Savannah River site to an open-pit plant, rising from $ 4.6 billion to $ 11 billion. of dollars. A budget note indicated that the estimate could increase.
Hruby’s uneasy admission of the longer time required and skyrocketing costs indicate that converting this facility to a pit factory is a monstrous undertaking, and the lag is likely to affect the lab. of Los Alamos, said Tom Clements, executive director of the nonprofit SRS Watch.
“This is not only going to have an impact on the SRS projects, but it is going to put enormous pressure on the schedule, costs and environmental impacts of the Los Alamos surface plant,” Clements said. “It means that [the lab] will run five more years on its own.
Officials at the nuclear agency did not respond to questions about whether the Los Alamos laboratory could be used to dig more pits for the warheads.
The agency’s entire site analysis last year said Los Alamos is expected to have a “surge capacity” of 80 pits. This means that the lab would be able to increase pit production to this volume for short periods of time if needed.
At the time, agency officials said there were no plans to install the equipment needed to complete 80 pits on a regular basis.
However, agency spokeswoman Toni Chiri said The New Mexican in March 2020, such upgrades could take place in the future.
“Just because we have the capacity to do 80 wells does not mean that we will do 80,” Chiri said. “It’s impossible to predict what will happen in 10 years.
The most pits the lab dug in a year were for Navy missiles more than ten years ago.
Agency officials continue to express confidence that the lab will meet its 2026 target of making 30 pits per year, even though Savannah River requires more time.
Clements said sources at Capitol Hill said Savannah River’s estimated costs could reach $ 14 billion.
This site was originally intended to be a plant that turned old military grade plutonium into mixed oxide fuel for nuclear reactors. But skyrocketing cost overruns led the federal government to scuttle the project in 2019 after spending more than $ 7 billion.
“It could be a repeat of the MOX fuel debacle,” Clements said of the pit plant. “It’s totally run that way.”
In the end, more than five times could be spent on this building than what was spent on building the $ 4 billion One World Trade Center – all to make bomb cores, said Jay Coghlan, director. executive of the non-profit organization Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
Extending the renovations by several years is sure to put pressure on the lab to increase pit production beyond the current target, Coghlan said.
“I definitely predict it will have a boomerang effect on Los Alamos,” he said.
Clements said some of the new pits will arm a new generation of warheads. This is one of the main reasons why the two sites have launched a total of 80 pits per year by 2030, he said.
The Air Force has a new land-based intercontinental ballistic missile expected to enter service within the next decade, and leaders won’t want to delay deployment, he said, which could add pressure. on the lab.
But an anti-nuclear activist said it would cost Los Alamos at least as much to increase production from the pits, and that 30 pits would push the aging, even modernized, facility to full capacity.
“We’ve heard that 30 pits a year is the absolute maximum at LANL,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the nonprofit Los Alamos study group.
Savannah River can make a lot more pits than the lab, so it should be the only producer, Mello said.
Mello said his military-related sources said the Air Force would deploy its new warhead years later than the current plan. He won’t need the lab to intervene in the production of the pit because Savannah River is delayed, he said.
The Savannah River is also six miles from the nearest residential area, while the lab is only half a mile from a pueblo, Mello said.
Leona Morgan, a community activist with Diné No Nukes, said she was troubled to learn that the lab might end up producing more pits.
This would generate a larger flow of nuclear waste and require more uranium mining, all to make weapons the world doesn’t need, Morgan said. The government should use this money to clean up the waste left over from the Cold War that is affecting the environment and neighboring communities, she said.
The money could also be better spent on clean energy, education, infrastructure and feeding the poor, Morgan said.
“We cannot eat a nuclear weapon,” she said. “It won’t keep us warm at night.