Local antinuclear activists have joined colleagues at the national level to criticize the National Nuclear Security Administration as it makes plans to sharply increase its capacity for manufacturing the plutonium cores of nuclear weapons, commonly called pits.
At present, fewer than 20 pits are manufactured each year at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Actual production figures are classified.
Last week, the National Nuclear Security Administration announced that it plans by 2030 to increase Los Alamos production to at least 30 per year, while making at least 50 more per year in a facility to be built at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
NNSA is responsible for the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, from the design efforts at national laboratories like Lawrence Livermore, to manufacturing, transportation, maintenance and security.
No pit production is done at Lawrence Livermore or Sandia National laboratories.
Regarding NNSA’s plans, the activists are criticizing both the magnitude of the expected production increase and the agency’s decision that it need not carry out a programmatic environmental review as it proceeds.
That decision was conveyed in a Federal Register notice last week.
In a news release, the activists indicated they may take legal action in response.
To Marylia Kelly of Tri Valley CAREs, a Livermore-based protest organization founded in 1983, NNSA’s plan “flies in the face of our country’s foundational environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act,” as well as a standing federal court order.
She said she is “shocked but not surprised that NNSA would so flagrantly flout the law.”
In a press release issued jointly with several other activist groups, she said Tri-Valley CAREs “stands ready to uphold NEPA and the specific court order.”
The National Environmental Policy Act has several fundamental values, including enhancing government transparency and allowing time for careful analysis prior to “an irretrievable commitment of resources,” she wrote in a follow-up email.
Her views are generally shared by the other groups identified in the press release: the Natural Resources Defense Council, Nuclear Watch New Mexico and SRS Watch. (SRS is the acronym for the Savannah River Site.)
NNSA’s decision to increase pit production comes as no surprise. During congressional confirmation hearings two years ago, the head of the agency, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, called it NNSA’s “top priority.”
Its ranking in NNSA programs has been confirmed in recent public comments by her deputy, Charles Verdon.
Both Gordon-Hagerty and Verdon once worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Gordon-Hagerty as a health physicist in the 1980s and Verdon as a nuclear engineer, who became principal associate director in 2013.
Pit production has been a challenge for the U.S. since closure of its Cold War manufacturing site, the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, in 1989.
According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, a small replacement facility set up at Los Alamos never made more than 11 pits in a year, while 50 to 80 per year are considered necessary to maintain the U.S. arsenal.
The need for this level of production is challenged by the activist groups, who argue that the U.S. has thousands of viable pits stored at NNSA’s Pantex Plant in Texas.
They also claim that the high cost of production – an estimated $43 billion over 30 years – would be much more constructively spent on social and economic needs than on nuclear weapons, which they see as a dangerous and destabilizing influence.
NNSA, on the other hand, considers expanded pit production as required both by White House policy -- for example, the Nuclear Policy Review, published in 2018 – and by national spending laws passed by Congress.
The agency “lacks discretion to consider alternatives outside of national policy,” NNSA has said in response to challenges.
A more specific complaint by the activists has to do with a particular warhead originally designed at LLNL, the W78, first deployed in 1979 and now being refurbished as the W87-1 with enhanced safety and security features. It is planned for deployment on Air Force ground-based missiles at the end of this decade.
In their press release, the activists allege that NNSA will modify the old warhead so extensively that the U.S. may have to return to full-scale nuclear testing to verify its performance, thus leading to a breakdown of international nonproliferation agreements. NNSA states that the warhead will be “certified without the need for additional underground nuclear explosive testing.”