LANL pit production a year behind schedule

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Oct. 5 – Los Alamos National Laboratory’s efforts to produce 30 nuclear bomb cores a year by 2026 have been stalled for 13 months due to the coronavirus pandemic, calling into question whether it can make the much-vaunted target .

An anti-nuclear campaigner has obtained a redacted management plan for the lab’s plutonium operations through a Freedom of Information Act request, which outlines how the production deadline is more likely to be missed in due to the delay of the preparatory work during a difficult period of the pandemic.

In a 20-month period, only seven months of work were completed to upgrade the plutonium facility and strengthen operations so that the lab could achieve the primary goal of fabricating 10 warhead triggers, known as pits, d 2024, according to the document obtained by Los Alamos. Study group.

If stalled work makes it more likely the lab will miss that first goal, it’s unrealistic to think it will meet subsequent deadlines of 20 pits by 2025 and 30 pits by 2026, said group executive director Greg Mello. .

“We don’t see them suddenly catching up,” Mello said. “It’s hard to catch up when you’re 13 months behind.”

The National Nuclear Security Administration, the branch of the US Department of Energy that oversees nuclear weapons, did not respond to questions about the statements made in the review.

US Sens offices. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, who are strong supporters of the lab’s nuclear weapons program, did not respond to requests for comment on the pit’s potential delay in production.

Mello said the lab failing to meet deadlines is “no big deal” because they are arbitrary and producing new pits for the nuclear stockpile is not necessary, especially in the 2020s.

“Politically, you have to wonder why these deadlines were set in the first place, if they’re not that important…or if they turn out to be unachievable,” Mello said.

The initial mandate for pit production came from former President Barack Obama, whose administration lobbied for the United States to have the capacity to manufacture 50 to 80 pits.

Under former President Donald Trump, military leaders, nuclear security officials and some senators — including Heinrich — set a firm timeline for the Los Alamos lab and Savannah River site in South Carolina to do 80 pits. combined per year by 2030.

This objective was enshrined in the 2018 nuclear posture review, which indicated that new pits were needed to modernize the country’s arsenal to deter adversaries such as Russia, China, Iran and the States thugs who were improving their first-strike abilities.

President Joe Biden announced plans to update the nuclear guide last year, but has yet to do so.

Jill Hruby, who heads the nuclear safety agency, determined Savannah River’s original goal of producing 50 pits was untenable and said the mid-2030s was more realistic.

For years, critics had said that turning Savannah River into an open-air plant would be more expensive and take longer than originally anticipated.

This site was originally intended to be a plant to process old weapons-grade plutonium into mixed oxide fuel for nuclear reactors. But soaring cost overruns led the federal government to scuttle the project in 2019 after spending more than $7 billion.

Some federal officials have estimated the costs of converting the complex to a pit plant could be as high as $14 billion.

With the Los Alamos lab, Hruby did not question the pit production schedule.

She and other Energy Department leaders approved a budget increase to boost the lab’s plutonium operations and modernize the facility. The proposed funding would rise to $1.6 billion from $1 billion this year, an increase of more than 50%.

The watchdogs said the artificial deadlines create a false sense of urgency to raise more funds.

Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said the lab had a history of delays and cost overruns that predated the pandemic.

“I suspect LANL and [the federal government] are using COVID as a convenient excuse for what’s going to happen anyway,” Coghlan said. “I’m certainly not saying there hasn’t been a delay for COVID, but I very much doubt that.

Coghlan said the revelation is significant because it is the first official confirmation that the Los Alamos lab is behind schedule with its planned pit production.

Mello said several years ago that some federal officials, including at the Institute for Defense Analytics, were skeptical of the lab’s 2026 deadline and cautioned against pushing too hard, too fast.

“They thought it was old news, that LANL was going to have a really hard time meeting that deadline,” Mello said.

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