On the Precipice of Pit Production at LANL

A two-page Los Alamos Study Group ad appeared today in the September 29th Santa Fe Reporter titled “Plutonium warhead factory under construction near Santa Fe.” Three days before that, the Albuquerque Journal published Los Alamos Study Group Greg Mello’s op-ed (reprinted below) titled “How deep a ‘pit’ will Biden dig at LANL?”

Anti-nuke non-profits all over New Mexico and the country are rallying opposition to the reality of LANL’s pit factory that looms large. Billions of dollars will be spent to hire thousands of people and build facilities capable of producing 30 warheads at LANL and billions more at South Carolina’s Savannah River Site to build 50.

La Jicarita, an online journal of environmental politics, has extensively covered Los Alamos National Laboratory since 2006. In 2016 we published a compilation of La Jicarita essays, by various contributors, as an ebook  that documents the corruption, managerial incompetence, safety violations, and retaliation against workers and whistleblowers that plague this institution. As the Lab’s mission extends to the production of plutonium pits, the cores of thermonuclear weapons, it’s important that the public knows the history of this Cold War legacy that continues to threaten our health and well-being.

The first essay in the ebook highlights the work of scholars Joseph Masco and Jake Kosek, who wrote about the dysfunctional “culture” of Los Alamos National Laboratory in the mid 2000s: Masco about Lab scientists who transform the bomb into a technoaesthetic concept by “self-consciously devot[ing] their careers to engineering the bomb so that it will never actually be used as a bomb” (The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico); and Kosek, about the Española Valley workers dependent upon the Lab for employment, one of whom compares the Lab to a “bad boyfriend you enter into [a relationship with] seeing all the possibilities, but then it doesn’t live up to your expectations and even though you know it’s bad, it gives you something, you can’t get out, you can’t see another way. . . . You think it’s better than nothing and maybe it is. . . . What’s worse is that he can never tell the truth and he always has an excuse, he’s never wrong, never responsible, sometimes cute, ultimately painful” (Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico).

Another essay looks at the history of Bechtel, one of the world’s largest privately held corporations, that managed LANL in partnership with the University of California, for many years. That history includes numerous debacles with which it’s been connected: nuclear power plants, nuclear enrichment, the Hanford Nuclear Repository, Iraq, the privatization of water in Bolivia, and the spectacular failure at LANL to construct the Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility. In 2012, Nuclear Watch New Mexico filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Performance Evaluation Reports for LANL and all eight nuclear weapons sites in the country. The lawsuit sought to find out why the government continued to award tens of millions of dollars of contracts to the Bechtel/University of California corporate consortium that had increasingly demonstrated mismanagement and waste (Bechtel was relieved of its management in 2018).

Mark Schiller wrote a review of Peter Bacon Hales’ book Atomic Space, Living on the Manhattan Project, which discusses the strangle hold the Manhattan Project (MP) (responsible for the research and production of the first atomic bomb) established over the economies of northern New Mexico (LANL), eastern Tennessee (the site of the Oak Ridge production facility), and eastern Washington (the site of the Hanford production facility). The book also documents the many injustices perpetrated on the American people in the name of national security by the administrators of the MP, including knowingly exposing thousands of workers and military personnel to dangerous levels of radiation and other toxic chemicals and failing to adequately compensate hundreds of farmers who owned land condemned for the major production and research sites. Hale also traces the origins of the “military-industrial complex” (which President Eisenhower in his farewell address warned the country to be wary of) to the MP and discusses the effects the project has had on our social institutions and the advancement of scientific and technical research.

In 2012, David Correia, Eric Shultz, and Kay Matthews wrote about the six anti-nuclear activists who were arrested on Monday, August 6 in Los Alamos at a protest in observance of the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. More than fifty demonstrators, organized by (un)Occupy Albuquerque and NukeFreeNow!, blocked a LANL entrance at the intersection of Diamond Drive and West Jemez Road. When police ordered protestors out of the street in front of a LANL gate, six refused. “We wanted to throw a wrench into the gears of the war machine,” one protestor explained. All six were arrested and charged with criminal trespass, obstructing a right of way and disobeying an officer. If convicted they faced up to a $500 fine and three months in jail. Fortunately, they all did community service, not jail time.

La Jicarita wrote numerous articles about the Special Exposure Cohort (SEC). This status, regarding workers who became ill as a result of working at LANL, is a concession by the federal government that it does not have enough information to reliably determine how much radiation a group of employees was exposed to as a result of their work at nuclear facilities. It automatically entitles workers who’ve contracted one of twenty-two designated cancers to a settlement of $150,000 plus the costs of medical treatment directly associated with those illnesses under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEIOCPA) of 2000. Workers who have become ill and have not been granted SEC status, on the other hand, must go through a “dose reconstruction” process, which purports to scientifically determine how much radiation the worker was exposed to and the “likelihood” that they became ill as a result. Initially SEC status was granted to employees who worked at LANL between the years 1943-1975. LANL workers’ advocates were abke to convince the government to extend that status beyond those years, into the early 90s.

Stephanie Hiller wrote articles about the doomed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR is no more, but the pits go marching on) that was to house production of plutonium pits. After production costs boomed to over $5.4 billion, President Obama’s 2013 budget bill denied funding, then refunded, then took the position that “We look on it more as a deferment than a cancellation.” As Mello points out in his op-ed, this resulted in a factory inside LANL’s old R&D facility – “exactly what NNSA had said should never happen” that would start production in the mid-2020s.

We followed the development of the advocacy group Communities for Clean Water (CCW), which acts as both a watchdog and the conscience of LANL. In its information pamphlet the group puts it like this: “In order to ensure the good health of watersheds downstream and downwind from LANL and the good health of the Rio Grande and its tributaries so they can provide safe drinking water, clean water for irrigation, and pure natural water for sacred ceremony now and in the future, LANL’s historic waste must be cleaned up now.”

The coalition, whose main partners are Honor Our Pueblo Existence (HOPE), Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS), Amigos Bravos, and the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA), has filed Clean Air and Clean Water lawsuits and done the hard work of negotiating both the storm water and hazardous waste permits to which LANL must adhere.

A book review of former LANL employee Chuck Montaño’s “Los Alamos: Secret Colony, Hidden Truths: A Whistleblower’s Diary” is a blow by blow account of Montaño’s tenure at LANL, and, as you can discern from the book’s title, an indictment of the mismanagement, discrimination, and retaliation he experienced and witnessed while there. Chuck first became active in the battles over the Lab’s RIF’s, or Reductions in Force, in the mid-1990s, which were viewed as “a golden opportunity for managers to get rid of those they didn’t like.” As reported by Walter Howerton in the Rio Grande Sun: “Cutbacks are coming and they are going to hurt a great deal more in the Valley than they are on the hill.” But a more critical battle occurred after he was assigned as an auditor of LANL business operations and revealed circumstances of fraud, environmental contamination, and retaliation that resulted in his termination. La Jicarita also covered whistleblower Anthony Rivera’s claim against the University of California Livermore National Laboratory’s unsafe practices and retaliation.

Many more La Jicarita articles in the ensuing years covered the controversial Regional Coalition of LANL Communities that was supposed to advocate for legacy waste clean-up at the Lab but failed miserably and died an ignominious death inerw 2021. We also covered the Waste Isolation Pilot Program’s (WIPP) devastating accident, traced to an improperly packed canister from LANL that closed the facility for three years, along with the recent controversy over the Department of Energy’s plans to expand WIPP’s capacity despite the DOE’s commitment to close the facility by 2024.

In February of 2020, Taoseños for a Sustainable Future started a petition to Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Representative Ben Ray Lujan to demand that the DOE conduct a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) followed by a new Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement (SWEIS) for Los Alamos LANL before any expanded plutonium pit production and associated infrastructure projects begin. La Jicarita was there on March 10th when they and CCNS delivered over 700 of those petitions to the New Mexico congressional delegation.

How many times have petitions to the New Mexico congressional delegation been delivered and ignored? Especially since former Senator Pete Domenici’s tenure the delegation has been on board for whatever funding the DOE and the NNSA want for nuclear warfare development at LANL. Both former U.S. Representatives Ben Ray Lujan (now Senator) and Michelle Lujan Grisham (now Governor) introduced legislation to make sure LANL, not just the Savannah River Site, would be designated as a warhead production facility. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, and the Lab’s long history of dysfunction, their fallback position is that the Lab is the “economic engine” of New Mexico. As a result of this position, we’re on the precipice of falling off the cliff that Eisenhower warned us of so many years ago.

. . . . . . . . . .

How deep a “pit” will Biden build at LANL?
By Greg Mello / Los Alamos Study Group, Albuquerque
Sunday, September 26th, 2021 at 12:02AM

Every U.S. nuclear warhead and bomb contains a plutonium core, or “pit.” These slowly age. If for some reason the United States is still building nuclear warheads in the late 2030s and 2040s – which we can be sure will be an era of deepening climate collapse, global famine and other severe crises – those in charge of building those new warheads may require new pits.

Yet for reasons ultimately based on an ideology of global dominance, and on corporate self-interest, the U.S. now has a fabulously expensive crash program to make new pits not then, but now. Such a program is exactly what in 2019 the Institute for Defense Analyses warned defense agencies against. A rushed program, they said, was more likely to fail.

The pits are “needed” for a new Air Force warhead, to be made in sufficient quantity to place up to three warheads on each missile, a practice the United States abandoned a decade ago. Right now, there are enough highly-accurate, modern warheads to put one on each missile, without new pits. Alternatively, if a super-duper new warhead were for some reason required – e.g. to give the nuclear labs and plants something expensive to do – there are plenty of “young” pits of just the right kind at one warhead per missile.

It gets worse. In 2017 the National Nuclear Security Administration, then under the direction of former Air Force Gen. Frank Klotz, formally determined the plutonium facility at Los Alamos, built for R&D in the 1970s, was too old, too small, and too otherwise important to be a production facility. To build enough pits, and to have a factory that would last until it was truly needed, either a new facility would have to be built at Los Alamos National Laboratory, or a partially-completed facility in South Carolina could be repurposed. Unsurprisingly, NNSA found the South Carolina facility would be cheaper, faster and less risky.

New Mexico senators and their allies had a cow.

By 2018 Klotz, an Obama holdover, was gone. His successor, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, made the non-Solomonic decision to build two pit factories to satisfy everybody. Until then, nobody had seriously thought of building two such beasts.

One factory would be built inside LANL’s old R&D facility – exactly what NNSA had said should never happen. This one would start production in the mid-2020s. The South Carolina factory would be bigger, permanent and more resilient but would take longer to complete.

Building two factories was going to be expensive, but it wasn’t clear just how expensive. Meanwhile Gordon-Hagerty and others outmaneuvered OMB and DOE to extract from Trump, then under threat of impeachment, an unprecedented 25% increase in warhead spending.

As a result, money isn’t limiting in this program right now. Starting soon, however, the Biden administration will have to make some mature decisions, because costs are exploding.

Apparently LANL promised more than it could deliver. Early last year NNSA belatedly revealed LANL’s cramped factory would require 24/7 operations to make just 30 pits per year, implying an extra 2,000 staff members, more infrastructure and an unprecedented ballet of complexity. Operational costs would be a billion per year.

Then this year, projected capital costs in South Carolina came in very high. LANL’s nuclear construction costs also rose by billions.

Start-up costs for the two sites now are in the range of $32 billion to $39 billion through 2033, far more than anyone imagined, with $27 billion to $34 billion still to go, more than half at LANL. LANL pits will cost north of $50 million apiece, at least tripling the cost of any new warheads, again assuming production goes perfectly. It won’t. Even assuming perfect reliability, LANL by itself can’t make enough pits.

Meanwhile the brand-new South Carolina plant, five times the size of LANL’s decrepit facility and much safer, is being designed to make all the pits DoD says it needs, with one production shift.

The new administration inherited Gordon-Hagerty’s folly. What will it do?



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