To support a manufacturing effort crucial to future U.S. nuclear arms-modernization programs, the Department of Energy still plans to drastically increase the amount of plutonium permitted inside a building at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, according to a recently completed environmental review.

In a final environmental assessment dated July 18 and posted online Thrusday, the Department of Energy said its semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) will still shift much, but not all, planned analysis of future plutonium pits produced at Los Alamos to the lab’s Radiological Laboratory/Utility/Office Building (RLUOB) from its Plutonium Facility (PF-4).

To support the higher workload at the building, the NNSA plans to increase the amount of plutonium-equivalent material allowed in RLUOB by roughly tenfold, to 400 grams from just under 40 grams. That would allow the Department of Energy agency to install new analytical chemistry and materials characterization equipment in that newer, relatively cleaner facility, rather than PF-4.

Modifying the RLUOB to handle more plutonium would involve installing “additional enclosures and equipment,” the NNSA said. That would take eight to 10 years. In its fiscal 2019 budget request, the agency estimated recategorizing the facility would cost roughly between $210 million and $340 million.

Besides the investment and the time required, the NNSA’s plan requires reclassifying RLUOB as a Hazard Category 3 nuclear facility from its current designation as a radiological facility. Before it could do that, the agency was required under federal law to examine the environmental effects of the reclassification. That Energy-led effort resulted in the just-published environmental assessment, as a result of which the agency was able to issue what is known officially as a finding of no significant impact: a Department of Energy declaration that expanding RLUOB’s plutonium storage capacity would have no great effect on the environment, and that the agency does not have to do any more environmental reviews of its plan. 

As recently as 2015, the NNSA contemplated doing much of the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s (LANL) plutonium analysis at PF-4. The facility is supposed to become become the lab’s production hub for plutonium pits in 2026, when it is slated to begin cranking out 30 of the fissile warhead cores each year.

With 2026 rapidly approaching, and LANL having produced no war-usable pits since 2011, the NNSA worried that installing analytical equipment in PF-4 might disturb pit-production and imperil the agency’s ability to produce 80 pits annually by 2030, as the Pentagon has demanded.

Leaning on RLUOB for more analytical work means “fewer facility modifications would be required in PF-4,” the NNSA wrote in its final environmental assessment of the plan. It would also save money, get LANL plutonium production and analysis started sooner, and “free valuable PF-4 laboratory space for other activities involving larger quantities of nuclear material,” the agency said in the document.

Producing war-ready plutonium pits requires the NNSA to examine and understand the fissile material used to make up the warhead cores, along with the waste plutonium left over from casting pits. All of that requires analytical equipment separate from, but ideally nearby, the pit-production equipment.

The NNSA first detailed its plans for RLUOB publicly in February in a draft environmental assessment. Per federal environmental law, the plan had to go out for public comment before being finalized, which it did for 60 days. A total of 43 comments were submitted, which ultimately did not persuade the agency to change its plan.

One of these comments came from Jon Lipsky, the now-retired FBI agent who in 1989 led a raid on the Department of Energy’s Rocky Flats site near Denver. That industrial-scale pit factory, managed by Rockwell International during the second half of the Cold War, shut down after the raid; the contractor later pleaded guilty to violating federal environmental law.

“The proposed activities … at LANL are not capable of being safe, secure and environmentally sound,” Lipsky wrote, adding that the NNSA should “probably indefinitely” delay its decision to expand the building’s plutonium-storage limits.

Under current plans, “RLUOB is more likely than not to become [a National Priorities List] Superfund site, without being scoped as a nuclear repository, that is not protective of human health and the environment. Nuclear waste is not our friend.”

The NNSA countered that “[t]he RLUOB is a modern facility with modern operating equipment and does not have the legacy safety issues associated with operating older plutonium facilities,” and that “[l]ong-term site contamination due to RLUOB activities is not expected. Cleanup and remediation of the PF-4 and RLUOB will eventually occur and will be performed according to the regulatory standards in effect at that time.”

Most of the commenters opposed increasing RLUOB’s plutonium storage capacity without at least additional investigation of the environmental consequences. Some opposed all plutonium work at the site. Respondents included native tribal governments, individual New Mexicans writing on their own behalf, and a pair of local nuclear watchdogs, the Los Alamos Study Group and Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

The Pentagon wants the NNSA to produce 80 plutonium pits a year by 2030. The DoE branch plans to make at least 30 cores a year at LANL. The remaining 50 would come from the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., by converting an unfinished plutonium-disposal plant there, the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, into a pit factory.

The plan to turn the plutonium disposal plant into a weapons facility faces considerable legal and political resistance, and the commanding officer of U.S. nuclear-forces has warned that the NNSA must resolve the issues by December to meet the 2030 production goal.

Meanwhile, outgoing LANL Director Terry Wallace has said PF-4 would be capable of a “surge capacity” that could boost pit production “up to 80 pits per year.”