How many US nuclear weapons need new pits every year? 10, 20, 80 pits a year? How big of an investment is necessary to ensure that can produce the minimal amount of pits. These questions are driving the future of the Los Alamos Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) and the future of nuclear weapons.
What is a plutonium pit and where is it made?
At the center of every US nuclear weapon is a component called “a pit” manufactured from plutonium. It is the core of the weapon, the device that initiates sustained nuclear reaction. For several years there has been a debate about their operational lifetime and therefore the rate in which new pits need to be manufactured to maintain the US nuclear weapon stockpile. During the Cold War, nuclear warheads were replaced with new designs well before pit deterioration took place. The pits in the current U.S. stockpile are expected to deteriorate over time, but over a long period.
The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) opened in 1952 houses seven wings, including two banks of hot cells that are laboratories designed for actinide materials science and analytical chemistry as well as unique capabilities for working actinide metals. Significant upgrades were made in the 1990s in maintenance and in upgrading building systems to meet regulatory and safety requirements. But these improvements were not enough to keep three of these wings operational. The building is scheduled for retirement in 2019. The PF-4 site was designed to be the nation’s premier actinide research and development facility in 1978. It is the only remaining facility in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Security Administration (NNSA) complex with the capability to conduct operations with all isotopes and chemical forms of plutonium, as well as other actinides. PF-4 currently produces around 10 pits per year at Los Alamos and will continue to produce pits.
Prior to the 1980s, there was a significant number of Department of Energy (DOE) facilities dedicated to studying and using actinide material, but sites such as Mound, Ohio, Pinellas, Florida, Hanford, Washington and Rocky Flats, Colorado were either closed or had their missions changed from production and support missions to decontamination and decommissioning. That left Los Alamos operating the nation’s only full-service plutonium facility.
The Five-Year Delay of Funding for the CMRR-NF
[The CMRR-NF] fulfills a critical mission in supporting the analytical chemistry and metallurgy needed to certify that the plutonium used in the stockpile meets basic material requirements. The ability at CMRR-NF to quickly analyze and characterize special nuclear materials—to know where they were made, their purity, and their chemical and mechanical properties—also underpins our work for the nation in non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and treaty verification missions. (Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Charlie McMillan, April 18, 2012)
Jon Wolfsthal Former special advisor to Vice President Joe Biden for nuclear security and nonproliferation, claims that five months ago the directors of the nuclear weapons laboratories, LANL and LLNL, proposed a delay in building the $6 billion Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility at a budget planning session. Recalling the conversation, Wolfsthal paraphrased the laboratory directors’ message, “Because we’re concerned about the ability to fund this program and have it deliver on time, we’ve looked at it and think that there’s a way you can do the necessary sampling of plutonium work to allow us to have certain pit production rates in the midterm, without having to build the CMRR.” He added: “What the lab directors are worried about, rightly, is that we’re going to build facilities and not be able to fund the people that do the real work in those facilities. So they came to us with an alternative plan.” The Obama administration announced in February that it planned to save $1.8 billion over the next five years by postponing work on the CMRR-NF during this term.
NNSA spokesman Josh McConaha supported Wolfsthal recollections:
The decision to defer [CMRR] by at least five years was made by [NNSA] Administrator Tom D’Agostino, Principal Deputy Administrator Neile Miller, and Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Don Cook. It came after significant consultation with the directors of Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia national laboratories.
Pit Replacement Capability is Established During Significant Variance in US Nuclear Weapons Strategy
1991: START was signed between Presidents Bush and Gorbachev to remove about 80 percent of all strategic nuclear weapons then in existence.
1991: President H.W. Bush announced a raft of unilateral initiatives to limit and reduce US tactical weapons arsenal. Days later, President Gorbachev announced his own nuclear reductions.
1992: President Bush added an addendum to his previous initiatives that included taking US bombers off of round-the clock alert to respond to a possible nuclear attack, shutting down production of the B-2 bomber, ceasing production of new warheads for sea-based Trident missiles, and ending production of advanced cruise missiles.
1993: President Clinton announced an indefinite moratorium on nuclear testing.
1993: DOE called on Los Alamos to develop the manufacturing capabilities to produce 20-50 pits a year eventually.
1996: DOE determined that Los Alamos could produce a maximum capacity of 80 pits per year at its PF-4 plutonium and this would be sufficient to support the proposed START II force of 3,500 deployed nuclear warheads.
2000: A Modern Pit Facility was proposed with a single-shift production capacity of 125, 250, or 450 pits per year by 2020 at an estimated cost of $2-$4 billion with an annual operating cost of $200-$300 million.
2001: Los Alamos was working on a plan to develop the capability to produce 20-50 pits a year for existing warheads.
2003: The House Appropriations Committee questioned the urgency of the Modern Pit Facility as the rationale for the facility might disappear if the United States downsized its stockpile to a level appropriate to the post-Cold War security situation. The Committee called on NNSA “to plan and execute a program to support defense requirements based on what is needed rather than the continuation of a nuclear stockpile and weapons complex built to fight the now defunct Soviet Union.”
2003: The Modern Pit Facility was called “CMR Replacement (CMRR)” and was proposed to be two large buildings near PF-4.
2003 Los Alamos produced the first pit for quality testing.
2004: Congress provided an unrequested $9.0 million to start Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program program to “improve the reliability, longevity and certifiability of existing weapons and their components” for FY2005. Funding increases every year until FY2009.
2006: NNSA proposed a major new initiative, Complex 2030, that included the RRW program to design a new nuclear warhead and bomb family that would ultimately replace the entire US nuclear arsenal. Complex 2030 would consolidate fissile material, eliminate some redundancies in R&D facilities, and consolidate elements of the nuclear complex The estimated cost for Complex 2030 (that the GAO stated was too low) – $150 billion, but advocates claimed it would permit a simpler, smaller and less costly nuclear complex. The US stockpile included 10,000 warheads. The plan assumed that by 2012, the United States would have 6,000 nuclear weapons with 2,200 deployed.
2006: The simpler and less expensive of the two CMRR buildings, the Radiological Laboratory, Utility and Office Building began construction.
2006: Based on Los Alamos/Livermore assessments, JASON (an independent group of scientists that advises the US government on matters of science and technology) concluded that “there is no evidence from underground nuclear-explosion testing analyses for plutonium aging mechanisms aﬀecting primary performance on timescales of a century or less in ways that would be detrimental to the enduring stockpile”.
2007: Los Alamos produced its first production pit and met its 10 pit per year requirement.
2007: The United States had reduced its non-strategic nuclear weapons by over 90 percent since 1991.
2009: The U.S. Congress denied funding for RRW program, and in 2009 the Obama administration called for work on the program to cease. No bills contained RRW funds, but a provision in the House and Senate defense authorization bills would strike Section 4204a of the Atomic Energy Act directing DOE to establish the RRW program.
2011: Los Alamos completes its 29th pit and expands its capability to develop other types of pits and weapons components for future stockpile stewardship endeavors.
2012: In February, the Obama administration in consultation with the NNSA and DoD postponed funding CMRR-NF for at least five years.
2012: Radiological Laboratory and Utility Office Building finished a year early.
2012: In May, Representative Mike Turner (R-Ohio) submitted two amendments as Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces to replace funding for CMRR-NF. The House and Senate Armed Services passed the amendments.
Budget Tightening and Conflicting Priorities
Early expectations of CMRR-NF being a facility that would reduce excess capacities, preserve and expand technical capabilities at a reduced operational cost has been anything but.
In October, 2006 Los Alamos management changed from non-profit University of California to for-profit Bechtel. Los Alamos’ management costs increased from $7.65 million in 1998 to $72 million in 2009. So did the cost estimates to construct the proposed CMRR building.
In its March 2012 report, the GAO wrote:
The estimated cost to construct the CMRR-NF has greatly increased since NNSA’s initial plans, and the project’s schedule has been significantly delayed. According to its most recent estimates prepared in April 2010, NNSA determined that the CMRR-NF will cost between $3.7 billion and $5.8 billion—nearly a six-fold increase from the initial estimate.
Some of the reasons for the increased costs include increased administrative, safety and security costs, while a major increase in costs is due to building the CMRR-NF in a complex seismic fault zone between the Rio Grande rift valley and a dormant supervolcano. The facility is being designed with a much larger foundation.
Reliance on nuclear weapons for US national security has significantly declined since the Cold War as have the number of weapons in our stockpile. Nuclear weapons are increasing being viewed as weapons of last resort. Budget pressures continue to push the Pentagon to look for cuts. The military is evaluating reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal below the levels set in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). It is assessing at what level of nuclear reductions will make the nuclear triad no longer economical or feasible, thus reducing the triad to a dyad.
In his book My American Journey, Colin L. Powell remembers while serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that maintaining nuclear artillery shells was a waste of money. “I was becoming more and more convinced that tactical nuclear weapons had no place on a battlefield.”
Gen. James Cartwright, the retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former commander of nuclear forces, recently said that deterrence could be guaranteed with 900 warheads, with only half deployed at any time. “The world has changed, but the current arsenal carries the baggage of the cold war,” General Cartwright said in an interview. “There is the baggage of significant numbers in reserve. There is the baggage of a nuclear stockpile beyond our needs. What is it we’re really trying to deter? Our current arsenal does not address the threats of the 21st century.”
The Laboratory directors are facing significant cuts to the nuclear weapons programs as well and are in the position of trying to absorb cuts while meeting stringent requirements to certify the safety and reliability of the nation’s nuclear stockpile as it ages without nuclear testing. Los Alamos’ FY12 funding dropped $300 million from FY11 levels, resulting in 557 employees leaving the Laboratory in a volunteer separation. The FY13 budget request has been cut another $100 million. For every single pit manufactured, 700 employees are involved in the process, 300 of them dedicated full-time.
In April 2012, Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Charlie McMillan testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee:
The existing Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) facility at Los Alamos is 60 years old, sits on a seismic fault, and, as the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States said in 2009, “is already well past the end of its planned life.” The facility is unable to meet the high-volume analysis needed to meet the Department of Defense (DoD) expectation of 50 to 80 newly manufactured pits per year.
Charlie McMillian challenged the Committee to make a decision:
Whether the ultimate decision is to move forward with an alternative plutonium approach, or to continue with CMRR construction, every day that we do not address the issue is a day in which our risks increase.
Bob Peurifoy, former Vice President of Sandia National Laboratories who spent a 39 year career working on nuclear weapons, in a 2010 Affadavit stated:
While it is important to maintain a de minimus ability to produce pits, pit production enabled by CMRR-NF is not needed to maintain U.S. nuclear weapons for decades to come. As a result, the Nuclear Facility might just sit there and do nothing.
In an unusual showing of bipartisanship, the House energy and water spending bill for fiscal 2013 provided no new funds for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement nuclear facility. Defense officials said that they were reviewing whether fewer pits would be required in years to come and the NNSA began assessing other options for performing analytical chemistry and related research without the new facility.
The White House justified delaying funding for the CMRR construction for at least five years and instead for the NNSA to modify existing facilities and relocate some nuclear materials.
In place of CMRR for plutonium chemistry, NNSA will maximize use of the recently constructed Radiological Laboratory and Utility Office Building that will be fully equipped in April 2012, approximately one year ahead of schedule. In place of CMRR for plutonium physics, NNSA has options to share workload between other existing plutonium-capable facilities at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories.
In place of CMRR for the storage of special nuclear materials, the Budget includes $35 million to accelerate actions that process, package, and dispose of excess nuclear material and reduce material at risk in the plutonium facility at Los Alamos. If additional storage is needed, NNSA can stage plutonium for future program use in the Device Assembly Facility in Nevada. The Office of Secure Transportation Asset will execute shipments as needed.
Motivated by Saving Nuclear Modernization or by Saving a Big Construction Project?
Last month Representative Mike Turner (R-Ohio) submitted two amendments (#46 and #47) as Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee (HASC) on Strategic Forces. Amendment #46 would appropriate $160 million to the CMRR-NF for FY2013. Number 47 would take responsibility of construction away from NNSA and requires the Department of Defense to build and pay for it. (Turner believes that the Pentagon’s military construction bureaucracy is more likely to deliver a facility on budget and in time compared to the NNSA and national laboratory capital projects staff.) Under this amendment NNSA would keep some authority, but Congressional authority would probably transfer in both chambers from the Subcommittees on Energy and Water Appropriations to the Subcommittees on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations. The amendment ensured that no funds could be appropriated for “any activities associated with a plutonium strategy for the [NNSA] that does not include achieving full operational capacity of the (CMRR-NF) by fiscal year 2024.” In other words, lower-cost options and plans for producing plutonium cores could not be considered. Turner also submitted amendment #141 to prevent the implementation of New START if funding for NNSA’s stockpile and complex modernization efforts, as well as DoD’s strategic delivery system modernization, does not meet the specific levels outlined in the Update to the Section 1251 Report to the FY10 National Defense Authorization Act. It also prohibits any further reductions or changes to U.S. nuclear posture unless these commitments are met. All amendments passed in the HASC.
The Senate Armed Services Committee voted unanimously to fund the CMRR facility. The committee put a legislative cap of $3.7 billion on spending. The next step is for the House and Senate appropriation committees to find the funds, which will be challenging.
Representative Turner represents Ohio, a state that hosts a significant Bechtel presence. Bechtel is the corporate partner in partnerships Los Alamos National Security, LLC and Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC. Bechtel Construction is the largest construction and engineering company in the United States. If the CMRR project continues, it will be the largest construction project in the history of New Mexico. There would be no permanent jobs created. It is estimated that there would be an average 410 temporary construction jobs over nine years.
All federal tax revenue in 2011 was $2.2 trillion — less than one sixth of the total national debt. The $15 trillion debt amounts to $133,000 per taxpayer. A decision not to build the CMRR-Nuclear Facility could save around $6 billion over the next 10 years. Not expanding plutonium pit production could save tens of billions of dollars over the next half-century.
Other options exist beyond the CMRR-NF solution. Lisbeth Gronlund and Stephen Young cover alternative strategies available to meet changing requirements in significant detail without the new facility. Josh McConaha of NNSA states: “This isn’t about a building, it’s about a capability that we are able to maintain without immediate construction.”
It will be a complicated path to meet the HASC and SASC requirements in FY13. The House energy and water spending bill for fiscal 2013 provides no new funds and also withholds $65 million in prior-year appropriations for the CMRR-NF effort, recommending that it be used to offset budget shortfalls and other Los Alamos operations. This legislation also requires NNSA to submit a report to Congress within 60 days of the bill’s enactment explaining how it will sustain plutonium pits in the next five years and beyond.
The House authorization bill directs $100-$160 million towards the CMRR-NF in FY13. The Senate authorization bill requests up to $160 million in as-yet unspent prior-year funds for the CMRR-NF in FY13, but prohibits NNSA from taking dollars away from other priority efforts, such as the Y-12 complex. This bill still needs to clear a floor vote. The House and Senate bills differ on the topics of moving authority of the program to the Defense Department in 2014 and on expenditure figures. Both House and Senate authorizers want to see the CMRR-NF funded with a combination of prior-year and 2013 dollars, but their counterpart appropriators think the project can be delayed and is unaffordable now. There are no new 2013 funds for the facility and it is unknown whether the administration would spend prior-year dollars.
In order for CMRR-NF funding to appear, the $150 million will have to come from other programs within NNSA or DoD, which will not be welcome as budgets shrink and could end up cannibalizing other programs even within Los Alamos. Reprogramming large amounts of money from one program to another requires the approval of four key House and Senate spending committees, committees that didn’t fund CMRR.
The CMRR-NF program is the fork in the road that will take us down a path that minimizes our reliance on and numbers of nuclear weapons in the future, or one that will maintain Cold War nuclear strategy.