By George Lobsenz

In a downsizing plan that effectively maintains current warhead production capacity, the National Nuclear Security Administration said yesterday it plans to significantly shrink the operating footprint of the Energy Department’s eight nuclear weapons sites over the next 20 years–but close none of them.

NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino, finalizing a proposal that has been two years in the making, said the weapons complex “transformation” plan would save tens of millions of dollars in security costs annually by consolidating storage of sensitive nuclear materials from seven sites to five. In particular, he said the plan maintains the agency’s current goal of getting all but small quantities of plutonium out of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory–which is located in the heavily populated San Francisco Bay area–by 2012.

Overall, he said the weapons complex would shrink from about 35 million square feet to 26 million square feet, with more than 500 buildings to be eliminated. That is down from the complex’s Cold War-era high of 70 million square feet.

D’Agostino also said that NNSA–DoE’s semi-autonomous nuclear weapons agency– envisioned a 20-30 percent drop in its weapons workforce due to the ongoing reduction in the nation’s nuclear warhead stockpile due to arms control agreements with Russia.

However, he said many of those scientists and engineers would switch from working on warheads to NNSA’s growing missions of countering nuclear proliferation, bolstering the nation’s ability to respond to nuclear emergencies and developing new nuclear “forensics” technology needed to track global movement and use of plutonium and other sensitive nuclear materials.

In a key decision that reflects uncertainty about the ultimate size of the future stockpile, D’Agostino said the final transformation plan calls for maintaining or upgrading facilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory to assure continued annual production capacity of at least 20 plutonium pits for warheads. He said the same infrastructure could support production of up to 80 pits per year, but that the agency was sticking with its current 20-per-year capacity until DoE and the Pentagon complete a new nuclear posture review next year.

“There is essentially no decision on pit manufacturing,” D’Agostino told reporters on a conference call. “We will remain at 20 pits per year at [Los Alamos]…To go beyond 100 pits per year, you would need new facilities.”

He emphasized that maintaining current pit production capacity–and pursuing non-proliferation and counter-terrorism activities–required NNSA to proceed with construction of a replacement facility for Los Alamos’ aging Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) facility, which is vulnerable to earthquakes and does not meet modern safety standards. However, NNSA said it was dropping tentative plans to add 9,000 square feet to the initially proposed CMR replacement facility, saying the extra space was not needed.

In other new wrinkles to NNSA’s plan revealed yesterday, D’Agostino said the agency was now proposing to build a new underground storage facility for plutonium pits at its Pantex plant in Texas because that would save substantial security costs. He said Pantex had been planning to build a new fence around vulnerable storage areas, but now NNSA would use the fence money for the underground storage facility.

NNSA also appeared to pull back on previous proposals to close various weapons testing facilities at Los Alamos and Livermore, saying those facilities would continue operating to the end of their design lives and NNSA would hold off on building any new testing facilities at the Nevada Test Site. NNSA also said it was rolling back proposals to exit the Tonapah Test Site and to close Livermore’s Site 300, which it said would continue testing and high explosives research.

D’Agostino acknowledged that NNSA had come under pressure from members of Congress and the White House Office of Management and Budget to consider more aggressive downsizing, including the closure of at least one major site. In response, he said he convened an independent review team-the Cost Analysis Improvement Group-that took a closer look at possibly closing the decades-old Y-12 site in Tennessee, which is currently the main NNSA facility for high-enriched uranium (HEU) storage and processing, and moving those operations to another site.

But he said when the review was done, “it was very clear that…it was much cheaper to stay at Y-12 and recapitalize the site.” He said that while some people talked about moving Y-12’s work force, “you just don’t pick up 1,000 people and say, ‘I’d like you to move’….Things just don’t happen as easily in real life as they do on paper.”

In the end, the final downsizing plan appears to do little to change the current structure or missions of NNSA’s sites. It also contains few changes from the draft transformation proposal released by NNSA in January for public comment.

As with the draft plan, the final proposal calls for establishing “distributed centers of excellence” that reflect the status quo. Among the key designations:

  • Los Alamos will be the center for plutonium manufacturing and research and development. NNSA initially proposed a pit manufacturing capability of between 50 and 80 plutonium pits per year, but ultimately decided on 20. Los Alamos currently is the only NNSA site with pit production capability.
  • The Y-12 plant will be center for uranium manufacturing and research and development, with main responsibility for producing HEU components and subassemblies for warheads. NNSA said it would proceed with plans to build the new Uranium Processing Facility at Y-12 next to the new, specially designed HEU storage building recently completed at the site.
  • The Pantex plant in Texas will be the center for assembly and disassembly of warheads and manufacturing of high explosives, its current missions.
  • The Savannah River Site in South Carolina would remain the center for tritium supply and storage, with additional quantities of tritium being sent from Los Alamos to Savannah River by 2009. Tritium R&D also would be consolidated at the site, although small amounts of tritium would remain at Sandia to be loaded into neutron generators for warheads, and at Livermore for use in experiments at the National Ignition Facility.
  • Livermore was not designated as a distributed center of excellence for anything, but will conduct smaller-scale high explosives formulation, testing and research at its Site 300, possibly at a new facility. NNSA said Livermore remains essential for weapons R&D and related missions. Among other things, Livermore submitted the winning design for NNSA’s new “reliable replacement warhead,” cementing its future.
  • Sandia National Laboratories, which recently shipped all its nuclear materials to other NNSA sites, will work on on-nuclear weapons components and assist Los Alamos on high- computing capabilities for weapons, D’Agostino said.