June 15 – Nuclear deterrence is fully deployed during the war in Ukraine, with Russia and the United States threatening each other with nuclear destruction to force restraint, the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory said Tuesday at a forum in line.
Russia has told the United States and its allies not to intervene militarily in Ukraine, and President Joe Biden has made it clear that Russia must not encroach an inch on a NATO country – and both parties raise the specter of nuclear attack if those boundaries are crossed, lab director Thom Mason said.
“The role that deterrence is playing in Ukraine right now, really on the American and Russian side, is trying to limit that conflict,” Mason said.
Mason is a strong supporter of the lab producing 30 plutonium warhead triggers, also known as pits, per year by 2026, saying there is a need to modernize the nuclear arsenal and maintain a strong deterrent against opponents like Russia.
Plans also call for the Savannah River site in South Carolina to make an additional 50 pits per year by mid-2030.
Mason said he spoke with Biden during his Saturday visit to Santa Fe. They talked about protecting the lab from wildfires, but also briefly about the situation in Ukraine, Mason said.
“At the end of the Cold War, there was perhaps – in fact, there was – some hope that we were heading towards a world where nuclear deterrence was less important,” Mason said. “And that’s not the world we’re in [in] … in 2022.”
But critics of the lab’s efforts to bolster its nuclear weapons program believe the pit’s production targets are unrealistic and unnecessary.
Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, asked Mason in a written question why the lab is spending tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to increase production of bomb cores when a 2006 study found that those who Leftovers from the Cold War have been good for 85 years.
Mason replied that the authors of the study subsequently supported the resumption of production of the pits to ensure that they will not all have to be replaced en masse.
Most of the pits in the current stockpile are already over 40 years old, Mason said. If you let them all expire at once, it will require massive Rocky Flats-scale production, he said, referring to the Colorado mine plant that made 1,000 a year before it closed. in 1989.
Ongoing pit production will only replenish nuclear armament gradually, meaning there will be 85-year-old pits in the stockpile before the end, Mason said.
“We don’t know what the future holds for their ability to age gracefully,” Mason said. “It’s a problem that gets worse the longer we wait.”
After the forum, Coghlan wrote in an email that he was unhappy with Mason’s response. The question read to Mason was stripped of some wording needed for context, Coghlan said.
Furthermore, the study authors actually called for more detailed research before resuming fabrication of the pits, he said.
Efforts to keep pit production running on schedule are reflected in the lab’s increased budget, which has led to more hiring and more infrastructure upgrades, Mason said.
Funding for the Los Alamos lab would increase to about $4.6 billion from $3.5 billion this year under the U.S. Department of Energy’s first budget requests for fiscal year 2023.
The lab is on track to hire 2,000 people in the current fiscal year, Mason said.
But the increase in hiring isn’t being felt on the Los Alamos transportation system, as a quarter of the lab’s workforce, which includes full-time and part-time employees, telecommutes, has said Mason. Additionally, some work in the two office buildings the lab rents in Santa Fe, he said.
Asked about plans to add a high-voltage transmission line, Mason said there was a need to provide the lab with redundant or backup power, which is especially important for its supercomputers. Current power lines are reaching capacity.
An environmental assessment will be carried out to assess the impacts of the new line, which will require new transmission towers throughout its route through White Rock Canyon, south through the Caja del Rio area, then east to through the Santa Fe National Forest to a substation.
Calls for stronger protections at Caja del Rio have intensified since part of the La Cieneguilla petroglyphs in the sprawling area were vandalized.
Mason said he supported minimizing the impacts of the power line on the Caja del Rio.
The lab has made deals to buy solar and wind power from suppliers in a bid to use more green power, but a new transmission line is needed, he said.
“We have to take that power up the hill,” Mason said.