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U.S. Plutonium Pit Manufacturing

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This page is a legacy document in the NukeWatch archives -part of our "Arsenal of Information." For updated information please see:

Backgrounder on Pit Production at LANL [212 kb] - March 1, 2008

Factsheet on the Risks of Permanent Pit Production Operations at LANL [196] -March 13, 2008

Plutonium pits are the triggers that are at the heart of modern thermonuclear weapons.   The U.S. lost the capability to produce plutonium pits for its nuclear weapons stockpile in 1989 after a raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigating alleged environmental crimes at the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, Colorado.  At that time, the Rocky Flats Plant was the stockpile plutonium pit production facility for the American nuclear weapons complex.  Although the US Department of Energy (DOE) repeatedly tried to restart pit production at Rocky Flats, it never succeeded in doing so.

In 1996, DOE officially decided to relocate plutonium pit production to the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), some 40 kilometers northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico.   However, that decision was effectively made years in advance.  In 1993, LANL prepare an internal "strategic plan" that set out to grab whatever portions that it could of national nuclear weapons programs that it knew would inevitably be consolidated within a shrinking American nuclear weapons complex. LANL not only sought to gain the stockpile plutonium pit production mission, but to also obtain various related missions that would enable it to produce complete nuclear weapons.  The lab was largely successful in doing so. 

Not coincidentally, in 1993 DOE officially decided to relocate beryllium manufacturing operations to LANL, which had also been performed at the Rocky Flats Plant.  DOE had previously declared that beryllium manufacturing had to be located at the future plutonium pit production facility.  [Beryllium is used in plutonium pit liners, tampers, reflectors, and neutron generators for nuclear weapons.]  Together, the relocation of these two missions represents a return to the lab's historic "roots."  LANL had produced plutonium pits before Rocky Flats was built in the mid-1950's, both for weapons that were deployed to the stockpile and for the design and testing of new weapons.

Now that the plutonium pit production mission has been relocated to LANL, DOE and the laboratory are planning on huge investments in the lab's plutonium pit manufacturing infrastructure (please see the DOE graph on the reverse side of this page). This includes over half a billion dollars in construction over the next decade for upgraded or new facilities that are directly involved in plutonium pit production.  All of this is to sustain a relatively modest production rate of up to 50 pits a year.  But as if that were not enough, DOE is also making contingency plans for future production rates of up to 500 a year, most likely to be located at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina (to cost an estimated $3 billion).  For the sake of emphasis, these are just projected construction costs, not total program costs (which are typically triple that of construction costs).

One must ask what is the purpose of these proposed massive investments in American plutonium pit production in light of the end of the Cold War and the 1970 NonProliferation Treaty's obligation to disarm.  The painfully obvious answer is that the US simply has no intention to disarm.  Through its Stockpile Life Extension Programs, DOE is seeking to preserve American nuclear weapons literally "forever."   Moreover, there are increasing indications that the US is working on new designs for nuclear weapons (particularly low-yield weapons) or significant modifications to existing weapons (such as the already deployed adaptation of a gravity bomb into an earth-penetrating weapon that may target Russian command and control centers).  It is most likely for these combined reasons that the US is investing so much money into its resumed plutonium pit manufacturing operations.

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