U.S. Should Cancel Plutonium Plant, Delay Uranium Facility: Expert Report

Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
Oct. 17, 2013, 12:02 p.m.

WASH­ING­TON — The United States should can­cel plans to build a multi-bil­lion dol­lar plutoni­um re­search fa­cil­ity in New Mex­ico and post­pone con­struc­tion of an en­riched-urani­um pro­cessing plant in Ten­ness­ee, ac­cord­ing to a re­port re­leased Thursday by the Uni­on of Con­cerned Sci­ent­ists.

The UCS re­port, “Mak­ing Smart Se­cur­ity Choices,” cri­ti­cizes mul­tiple Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion plans for nuc­le­ar fa­cil­it­ies and weapons, ar­guing the plans to build new fis­sile-ma­ter­i­al hand­ling plants in par­tic­u­lar are un­ne­ces­sar­ily am­bi­tious giv­en the ex­pec­ted fu­ture down­ward tra­ject­ory of the U.S. nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al. The Uni­on of Con­cerned Sci­ent­ists is an in­de­pend­ent sci­ence ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tion.

The United States “should re­fur­bish its ex­ist­ing weapons in­stead of spend­ing tens of bil­lions to build new ones,” re­port co-au­thor Lis­beth Gron­lund said.

The UCS re­port tar­gets the Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­ject to build a Chem­istry and Me­tal­lurgy Re­search Re­place­ment plant at Los Alam­os Na­tion­al Labor­at­ory at an es­tim­ated cost of $6 bil­lion. A team of Los Alam­os labor­at­ory of­fi­cials earli­er this year re­com­men­ded ax­ing the pro­ject and farm­ing out its in­ten­ded du­ties to a group of smal­ler build­ings.

The so-called CMRR build­ing at Los Alam­os would re­place a Cold War-era site. It is in­ten­ded to as­sist in en­sur­ing new and ex­ist­ing plutoni­um pits are in work­ing or­der ab­sent a re­turn by the coun­try to nuc­le­ar-weapons test­ing.

The 81-page UCS re­port says if the United States car­ries out lim­ited re­duc­tions of its nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al over the next-quarter cen­tury — as Pres­id­ent Obama has said he would like to do — cur­rent fa­cil­it­ies at Los Alam­os can pro­duce suf­fi­cient plutoni­um cores to main­tain the war­head stock­pile.

The CMRR com­plex is de­signed to have the ca­pa­city to pro­duce between 50 and 80 plutoni­um pits an­nu­ally even though no more than 50 cores are needed yearly and Los Alam­os cur­rently has that pro­duc­tion cap­ab­il­ity, said Gron­lund, who co-dir­ects the Uni­on of Con­cerned Sci­ent­ists’ Glob­al Se­cur­ity Pro­gram.

“The idea that you would need to pro­duce up to 80 [cores] is not war­ran­ted,” she told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire in a Thursday in­ter­view

“We think it’s time just to can­cel the whole thing,” Gron­lund said.

Mean­while, Gron­lund and her co-au­thors say they do par­tially sup­port the NNSA plan to build a new highly-en­riched pro­cessing fa­cil­ity at the Y-12 Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Com­plex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. They be­lieve the fa­cil­ity is needed, but main­tain the cur­rent pro­ject is overly am­bi­tious and a more-mod­est fa­cil­ity could suf­fice.

They ad­vise first car­ry­ing out a new study to as­cer­tain wheth­er so-called sec­ond­ar­ies from ex­ist­ing war­heads could be re­fur­bished, which would re­duce the needed ca­pa­city at a planned pro­cessing plant. Sec­ond­ar­ies are fu­sion cell com­pon­ents in a ther­mo­nuc­lear bomb used to cre­ate more-power­ful blasts.

The en­vi­sioned Urani­um Pro­cessing Fa­cil­ity in Ten­ness­ee could cost as much as $7 bil­lion to con­struct. In ex­cess of 60 groups have come out against the pro­ject, cri­ti­ciz­ing its large price tag and stated mis­sion of pro­du­cing large num­bers of war­head sec­ond­ar­ies at a time when the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to down-size the U.S. nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al.

The re­port ad­di­tion­ally ad­vises can­celing a pro­ject, already un­der­way, to build a mixed-ox­ide fuel fab­ric­a­tion fa­cil­ity in South Car­o­lina. The ad­min­is­tra­tion in April said it was re­con­sid­er­ing its op­tions for dis­pos­ing of the sur­plus weapons-grade plutoni­um. The MOX fa­cil­ity was in­ten­ded to con­vert the ma­ter­i­al in­to fuel for atom­ic power plants. However, the pro­ject has been im­peded by sig­ni­fic­ant cost over­runs and sched­ule delays.

“The NNSA should can­cel the MOX pro­gram and em­bed ex­cess plutoni­um in a stable glass or ceram­ic form suit­able for dis­pos­al in a geo­lo­gic­al re­pos­it­ory,” the re­port reads.

The re­port also takes the NNSA to task for its plan to con­sol­id­ate the present stock­pile of sev­en kinds of war­heads down to five designs. Un­der the NNSA’s so-called “3+2” con­sol­id­a­tion plan, the coun­try’s fu­ture ar­sen­al would be com­posed of three war­head designs that would be in­ter­op­er­able with in­ter­con­tin­ent­al-bal­list­ic mis­siles and sub­mar­ine-launched bal­list­ic mis­siles while the re­main­ing two types of war­heads would be fielded on heavy bombers and cruise mis­siles.

But these new designs vi­ol­ate “the spir­it if not the let­ter of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pledge to not de­vel­op new nuc­le­ar weapons,” Philip Coyle, UCS re­port co-au­thor and former Pentagon head of weapons test­ing, ar­gued in a state­ment. “It sends the wrong mes­sage to the rest of the world.”

Gron­lund fur­ther main­tained that “the latest plan to pro­duce a new suite of war­heads to re­place the cur­rent ar­sen­al is in­con­sist­ent with Obama’s pledge to not pro­duce new war­heads and flies in the face of his com­mit­ment to fur­ther re­duce the role of nuc­le­ar weapons in U.S policy.”

Veri­fy­ing that the new war­head designs per­form as in­ten­ded could be tricky without re­turn­ing to nuc­le­ar test­ing — something that Obama has said he does not want to do, ac­cord­ing to the UCS doc­u­ment.

In re­search­ing and writ­ing the re­port, which takes a “big pic­ture view” of the U.S. nuc­le­ar weapons com­plex, Gron­lund said she and her col­leagues in­ter­viewed sev­er­al NNSA of­fi­cials but re­lied primar­ily on the semi­autonom­ous En­ergy De­part­ment’s own fisc­al 2014 Stock­pile Stew­ard­ship and Man­age­ment Plan.

“We did find some things that the com­plex is do­ing well,” she said. “They are be­ing very suc­cess­ful at main­tain­ing their tech­nic­al work­force. It’s something that people have been wor­ried about but it looks like they are do­ing al­right on that front.”

What We're Following See More »
$618 BILLION IN FUNDING
By a Big Margin, House Passes Defense Bill
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

The National Defense Authorization Act passed the House this morning by a 375-34 vote. The bill, which heads to the Senate next week for final consideration, would fund the military to the tune of $618.7 billion, "about $3.2 billion more than the president requested for fiscal 2017. ... The White House has issued a veto threat on both the House and Senate-passed versions of the bill, but has not yet said if it will sign the compromise bill released by the conference committee this week."

Source:
SUCCEEDS UPTON
Walden to Chair Energy and Commerce Committee
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

"Republicans have elected Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) the next chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. Walden defeated Reps. John Shimkus (R-IL) and Joe Barton (R-TX), the former committee chairman, in the race for the gavel" to succeed Michgan's Fred Upton.

Source:
BIPARTISAN SUPPORT
Senators Looking to Limit Deportations Under Trump
3 days ago
THE DETAILS

"Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are working on legislation that would limit deportations" under President-elect Donald Trump. Leading the effort are Judiciary Committee members Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is also expected to sign on.

Source:
REQUIRES CHANGE IN LAW
Trump Taps Mattis for Defense Secretary
3 days ago
BREAKING

Donald Trump has selected retired Marine Gen. James 'Mad Dog' Mattis as his secretary of defense, according to The Washington Post. Mattis retired from active duty just four years ago, so Congress will have "to pass new legislation to bypass a federal law that states secretaries of defense must not have been on active duty in the previous seven years." The official announcement is likely to come next week.

Source:
MEASURE HEADED TO OBAMA
Senate OKs 10-Year Extension of Iran Sanctions
3 days ago
THE LATEST
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login