The Los Alamos National Lab prepares to develop nuclear weapons

A major component of nuclear weapons was slated to be built in New Mexico after federal authorities approved a plan to prepare Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) for the work.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a branch of the US Department of Energy, announced earlier this month that it has approved the LANL project to prepare areas of the laboratory for plutonium pit production — a project known as LAP4 .

Plutonium pits are hollow spheres of plutonium that, when compressed with explosives, cause a nuclear detonation, according to a DOE report.

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The pits were first used in the 1940s during the Manhattan Project, the report said, to detonate atomic bombs tested at the Trinity site in southern New Mexico and then in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in Japan was dropped – widely regarded as the end of World War II.

Since the end of the war, Los Alamos pit production was limited to research purposes, and from 2007 to 2011 the lab produced pits to replace those in 31 warheads carried on US military submarines.

Between 1952 and 1989, most plutonium mines in the US were produced at the Rocky Flats plant near Denver in the midst of the Cold War, with a peak stockpile of 31,225 nuclear weapons equipped with the pits reported in 1967, read the report.

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Rocky Flats closed in 1989, and after concerns that pits that had been producing since the 1980s or earlier would deteriorate over time, Los Alamos was urged to build new ones.

The DOE asked Los Alamos to increase efforts at the lab to produce 30 pits per year by 2026, and the Savannah River site in South Carolina was tasked to produce 50 pits annually by 2030.

That means the US would be producing 80 pits a year by this year.

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But preparing LANL for work required a project to remove existing equipment and glove boxes to make way for pit fabrication equipment.

That work was scheduled to begin this spring via a project known as the Decontamination and Closure Sub-Project, the first of five projects to prepare the site.

“Reaching this milestone is a significant achievement and demonstrates NNSA’s commitment to modernizing the equipment and infrastructure required to safely fabricate pits for the nuclear storage facility,” said Summer Jones, NNSA associate assistant administrator for production modernization at LANL .

“LAP4 is a complex, challenging endeavor and receiving approval to begin the D&D sub-project is a huge step towards restoring this important capability.”

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A mixed oxide fuel plant was under construction at the Savannah River site for many years.  But the project was scrapped and the federal government intends to convert the site into a plutonium mine factory.

Opponents are calling for an environmental review of plutonium operations

Efforts to restart production of plutonium mines, and hence nuclear weapons, at the lab in New Mexico and South Carolina have been met with controversy from government officials and watchdog groups in both states, who opposed the projects.

Santa Fe aldermen passed a resolution last year Demands that a “site-wide” environmental impact statement be completed and all issued safety regulations cleared and certified by the federal government before ramping up pit production.

“The Board of Directors (Santa Fe City Council) requests the National Nuclear Security Administration to suspend any proposed expanded plutonium mine production until all nuclear safety issues are resolved, as confirmed by the independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board,” the resolution reads.

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Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Savannah River Site Watch then filed a lawsuit against the DOE and NNSA in June 2021 in the US District Court for the Aiken Division of the District of South Carolina. argue that pit production should not be increased until site-wide environmental assessments have been completed at both facilities.

“The dramatic expansion of plutonium mine production and the use of more than one facility to conduct that production are significant changes from defendants’ longstanding approach of producing a limited number of mines at a single facility,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit argued the increased pit production was intended not only to replace existing warheads, but to develop a new warhead called the W87-1.

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This project was developed with the right environmental analysis, suit reading or planning for where the associated nuclear waste would be disposed of.

“The dramatic expansion of plutonium mine production and the use of more than one facility to conduct that production are significant changes from defendants’ longstanding approach of producing a limited number of mines at a single facility,” the lawsuit reads.

In southeast New Mexico is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a repository for low-level radioactive transuranic element (TRU) nuclear waste—clothing materials and equipment that are irradiated during nuclear activity.

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However, litigants argued that WIPP already had limited capacity and its current New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) permit required the repository to cease waste disposal by 2024 and begin the decommissioning process.

The DOE filed a permit extension application with NMED last year, removing the 2024 closure date, leaving WIPP’s lifespan largely open-ended.

However, the lawsuit alleged that the DOE failed to consider the need for waste disposal.

“As a National Academy of Sciences concluded, the WIPP is already oversubscribed for future waste from multiple sites and will increase its capacity with this increase in TRU production from the pit project and other DOE projects that produce large amounts of TRU waste will generate, overwhelm.” Read the suit.

“Defendants have failed to meaningfully address this critical waste disposal issue.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

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