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

Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
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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.”

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