The Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has the technical and safety chops both to manufacture plutonium pits and to lead new research on the nuclear-weapon cores, the head of the lab’s weapons program said Wednesday amid an intensifying turf war over the Department of Energy’s plutonium mission.
“Something that I’ve heard a lot talking with folks is a concern about whether you can really do the scientific R&D that is necessary at Los Alamos and balance that with the pit production mission,” Robert Webster, LANL’s principal associate director for weapons programs, said at the ExchangeMonitor’s annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit. “And the reality is, it works very well.”
Webster spoke a day after Terry Wallace, LANL director for the last nine months of the current lab manager’s prime contract, touted the site’s fitness for a plutonium manufacturing mission it might soon have to share with DOE’s Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.
How soon is not clear, but the Pentagon has said it needs the department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to manufacture 80 pits annually by 2030.
Los Alamos has not made a war-ready plutonium pit since 2011, two years before a criticality safety scare prompted the government to shut down the lab’s plutonium facility, PF-4, for three years.
Webster said LANL handled the safety scare “in a fairly ham-handed way. And as a consequence, overall confidence in what was going on in PF-4 and in the confidence of the laboratory that was managing PF-4 dropped. So we paused.”
Now, however, PF-4 is again ready for manufacturing, once the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California certifies some test pits LANL is making now are suitable for use in the U.S. arsenal.
Webster did not provide a timeline for finishing the test pits.
Whatever happens, the NNSA plans to put LANL on the hook for 30 cores a year, whenever the agency gets the nod to resume production of war-reserve pits that will be deployed in the arsenal, according to acting NNSA Administrator Steven Erhart. He added that the NNSA had not yet decided where to manufacture the other 50 pits the Pentagon wants about a decade from now. Savannah River is still in the mix, per an NNSA study that leaked to the press last year.