The production of plutonium pits—the fissile cores required to detonate the explosion in a nuclear weapon—is said to be the chokepoint of America’s nuclear program: when the pit assembly line shuts down, the clock on the arsenal’s shelf life starts ticking.
But there are an estimated 15,000 pits of various age in government storage, and experts insist an untold number of them have lifespans in excess of 100 years. Given that the United States has pledged to reduce its nuclear arsenal (now at 7,100 warheads, with approximately 1,635 deployed), there would appear to be no reason to re-engage the production of plutonium pits.
Just in the last few years, the Obama administration, once keen on nuclear disarmament, has instead reversed course with plans not only to maintain but to modernize the existing nuclear fleet. As the New York Times reported in 2014, the administration “is engaging in extensive atomic rebuilding while getting only modest arms reductions in return.”
This was borne out in the release of the White House budget on February 9. According to analysts, Obama is going out with a bang, proposing to build new weapon systems for each leg of the nuclear triad: allocating roughly $3.2 billion to modernize and recapitalize nuclear submarines, bombers, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, and nuclear-equipped cruise missiles, and putting nuclear weapon modernization on track for an estimated $1 trillion price tag over the next 30 years.
This has nuclear watchdogs seeing red. Instead of moving forward to reduce the arsenal from the current New START Treaty ceiling, the administration appears to be taking Russia’s aggression on the world stage (which includes bolstering its own arsenal) as an invitation to re-engage the Cold War, maintaining the nuclear status quo “in perpetuity,” according to Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association. “[The proposals] can only be achieved in the event of substantial and prolonged increases to overall military spending over the next decade (an unlikely prospect), or if nuclear programs are funded at the expense conventional modernization or other national security programs (a reckless and self-defeating prospect),” he writes.
Critics are in ready supply. There are realists who do note that the current nuclear arsenal entered service in the Reagan administration, and to let it deteriorate further could send a dangerous signal to America’s enemies. But they also recognize that budgetary restraints will make it difficult to complete the kind of modernization envisioned—especially when the president’s budget asks for an equal investment in conventional weapons. Former Reagan defense official Lawrence Korb noted that the Pentagon’s planned upgrades would “nearly double the amount the country spends on its nuclear deterrent in the next decade compared to what it spent in the past decade.”
Then there are the nuclear reformers, who can’t reconcile the spending with present-day fiscal realities and, moreover, say the U.S. is sending the wrong signal by pursuing a $1 trillion nuclear weapons program. The U.S. and Russian arsenals already far surpass any other country in the world. At a time when America is telling other nations what nuclear facilities they can and cannot build and maintain, defending its own stockpile’s “strategic deterrence” brings hypocrisy to dizzying heights, they say.
“This administration’s proposal to renew and upgrade the entire nuclear triad as fast as possible, retiring essentially nothing and adding new capabilities as they become available, reflects a near-total absence of intellectual and moral leadership from the White House,” Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group tells TAC.
So what does this have to do with the pits? For some, the pits themselves have become a metaphor, the tell-tale heart of the nuclear age. “[The] locus of the most potential energy on earth, it’s the closest mankind has ever come to producing a devil in a bottle,” wrote Russ Wellen in 2014.
But beyond their existential implications, critics believe—much like other skeptics of the Military-Industrial Complex—that producing more pits is just make-work for the government’s nuclear labs, and big bucks for the contractors. The modernization program only exacerbates these conditions.
“We have an oversized nuclear weapons complex and to justify the budget they have to do something,” said Frank von Hippel, co-Director of Princeton’s Science and Global Security program. Watchdogs say that with interested politicians, corporations, and government in collusion, citizens are left out of the decision-making process. “People think we are out of the Cold War, at least for now, and people are thinking nukes aren’t in our everyday life any more. A lot is going on under the radar,” said Lydia Dennett of the Project on Government Oversight.
The widely known defense contractor Bechtel leads the public-private partnership now running Los Alamos National Laboratory. But the National Nuclear Security Administration (or NNSA, the semi-autonomous part of the Department of Energy that oversees the development and modernization of the nation’s nuclear warheads) announced Bechtel’s $2.2 billion contract won’t be renewed after a series of missteps, including a fire that severely burned a lab worker and possible contamination of enriched uranium stemming from two incidents in 2014. While critics cheer Bechtel’s departure, no one knows yet which new contractor-led group will take over.
Los Alamos is ground zero for the pit issue. It is the only place in the country that is equipped to make pits; it can produce about 10 a year. But politicians and bureaucrats in Washington say that is not enough, and so have engaged on an ongoing and, to some, confounding effort to pour billions of dollars into an expanded plutonium facility that could someday accommodate the production of 80 pits a year.
In 2011, TAC reported on the pitfalls of another production project at Los Alamos—the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), a budget metastasizing plan that, while far from finished, was itself supposed to increase pit production capacity to that magic number of 80 a year.
The cost had escalated to an estimated $6 billion, and critics warned that it could be a safety and environmental disaster, as the facility was designed over seismic fault lines. After much criticism by opponents like Mello and Nuclear Watch New Mexico, CMRR-NF was abruptly dropped by the administration in late 2014.
But the party was short-lived. Using the excuse of a promised new weapon—the Interoperable Warhead—that would require a new kind of pit, Congress mandated that Los Alamos build the capacity for no less than 80 pits a year by 2026. As a result, the laboratory was given the green light in December to begin plans for an underground series of “modules”—high hazard, high security labs that would extend the life of the main plutonium facility. This, combined with the growing nuclear capacity of the recently completed Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building, should allow Los Alamos to eventually produce the 80-pit mandate.
“It was all a bait and switch,” Mello told TAC. The module plan was begun even before reformers helped to kill the CMRR-NF. He said this new facility could cost as much as $3 billion.
The NNSA’s total budget request is for $12.9 billion for FY17, an increase of $357 million above its FY16 appropriation. Of that funding, $9.2 billion is slated for upgrade and maintenance of the weapons themselves.
The NNSA would not confirm the estimated price tag for the new facility, but told TAC that it is only in its nascent stages. “Specific details about design (size, capabilities, cost, schedule, etc.) are not determined until the Analysis of Alternatives is complete and the proposal moves into conceptual design,” said spokeswoman Francie Israeli.
Israeli did not respond to questions critics have raised about the need for the pits. She indicated that the lab, which will resume developmental-level pit production in 2016, is just following congressional orders.
So how did Congress move forward with the 80-pit mandate without debate? As critics point out, the Interoperable Warhead is still just a glint in the government’s eye, as the Navy has already delayed it for more than five years. But support for increasing pit production is bipartisan.
“I strongly support efforts to strategically reduce our nuclear arsenal through international disarmament agreements,” Sen. Tom Udall, (D-New Mexico), said in a January email to the New Mexican. “But as we do so, it’s prudent to ensure the safety and security of the remaining weapons by ensuring the plutonium pits are viable.”
But even if the president’s modernization plans were eventually realized, there are enough “viable” pits in reserve to service it for decades, say critics. “We estimate that there will be on average 2.4 reserve warheads and reusable pits for every deployed warhead overall,” Mello said. “In addition to all these reserves, there are already thousands of pits in storage—it is not publicly known how many—for potential re-use across type.”
Not every member of Congress is on board with the new mandate. “I strongly disagree with ramping up plutonium pit production, no matter whether it’s at a new facility in Los Alamos or anywhere else,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who sits on the Strategic Forces subcommittee.
“Moreover, the NNSA hasn’t even told us why they feel the need to increase pit production when we already have an unused stockpile of thousands of pits,” he told TAC in a statement, noting that he unsuccessfully filed an amendment to the 2015 NDAA that would have required the NNSA report on the rationale and cost of expanding pit production.
The best one can hope for, say critics, is that the process for the renewed pit production will again be overcome by cost and bureaucratic obstacles. Despite the $2.1 billion Los Alamos is getting in the president’s budget, there is no line item for the modules, just money for “plutonium production.”
Mello said they “were pleased” that that line item would be kicked down the road, to another president. “NNSA has another year to think this through before plunking capital asset money on the table.”
Nevertheless Mello is girding for a fight—especially now that the heat is increasing on the global stage. This could mean plum times for the nuclear state, he said. “Basically, the scale of investment in the labs and in production infrastructure requires a new Cold War to justify it.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.