By George Lobsenz

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Friday released a draft plan for “transformation” of its nuclear weapons complex that calls for phasing out some plutonium operations at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory by 2012, but otherwise appears to largely maintain current missions at its existing sites.

While the semi-autonomous Energy Department agency said last month that its plan would significantly shrink the operational “footprint” of several sites, NNSA’s “preferred alternative” for reconfiguring the weapons complex–as briefly outlined in a draft programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS)–appears to propose relatively little consolidation or closure of facilities.

Other than the proposed down-sizing of plutonium operations at the Livermore lab in California, the only consolidation initiatives in the draft PEIS focus on various weapons- related testing activities at Livermore and at Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories in New Mexico.

For example, NNSA’s preferred alternative calls for ceasing “open-air hydrotesting” at Los Alamos and Livermore in 2009 and shifting those operations to the Nevada Test Site. Hydrotesting facilities at Los Alamos and Livermore also would be consolidated and Livemore’s Contained Firing Facility would be closed by 2015.

NNSA also proposed to close most “major environmental testing facilities” at Livermore and Los Alamos by 2010, with remaining environmental testing operations at Livermore to be shifted to NNSA’s Pantex plant in Texas by 2012.

But while key members of Congress have pressed NNSA to move more aggressively on reducing the size of its weapons complex, the draft PEIS proposed few significant changes to the current missions of the agency’s major sites.

Notably, the preferred alternative calls for establishing “distributed centers of excellence” that reflect the status quo. Among the key designations:

  • Los Alamos would be the center for plutonium manufacturing and research and development. As currently planned, NNSA would proceed with construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility and maintain other existing facilities to provide a pit manufacturing capability of between 50 and 80 plutonium pits per year. Los Alamos currently is the only NNSA site with pit production capability, with a maximum output of up to 10 pits per year.
  • The Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge, Tenn., NNSA’s main facility for high-enriched uranium (HEU) operations, would be the center for uranium manufacturing and research and development, with main responsibility for producing HEU components and subassemblies for warheads. NNSA said a planned Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) could be built at several weapons sites, but noted that a new, specially designed HEU storage building was near completion at Y-12. Most experts presume the UPF will be built next to the HEU storage building at Y-12 to maximize operational efficiency and security savings.
  • The Pantex plant in Texas would be the center for assembly and disassembly of warheads and manufacturing of high explosives, its current missions. Strangely, other high explosives operations and research would continue to be scattered among the Nevada Test Site, Livermore, Sandia and Los Alamos.
  • 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 NNSA said it remained 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.

In terms of consolidating nuclear materials storage–a key to reducing soaring security costs in the weapons complex following the September 2001 terrorist attacks–NNSA said it planned to phase out by 2012 operations in Livermore’s “Superblock” facility involving “Category I and II” special nuclear materials, the most sensitive forms of plutonium and HEU.

The removal of that material responds to criticism that Livermore, because it is located close by urbanized sections of San Francisco’s Bay Area, is highly vulnerable to terrorist attack.

NNSA also plans to consolidate Category I and II special nuclear material stored at Pantex in the plant’s Zone 12 area, enabling the closure of Zone 4.

Interestingly, in a draft PEIS that ran hundreds of pages, NNSA provided only a few pages of the barest details on its preferred alternative for reconfiguration of its weapons complex.

Further, it did not directly explain the environmental impact of its preferred alternative. Rather, NNSA examined environmental impacts for a wide range of other consolidation alternatives, some of which appeared to be similar to the agency’s preferred alternative.

In a concession to critics who have assailed NNSA for not giving serious consideration to more aggressive down-sizing schemes, the agency added an alternative reviewed in the draft PEIS calling for a “consolidated nuclear production center” that would include all major nuclear materials and production missions.

A special advisory panel convened by DoE in 2005 recommended NNSA consolidate all weapons production activities at one site to dramatically reduce security needs and boost operational efficiency.

But top NNSA officials say centralizing all weapons production at one site faces major political obstacles–because that might lead to closure of NNSA sites in several states– and that NNSA would not be able to carry out such a dramatic consolidation and still meet ongoing nuclear stockpile maintenance responsibilities.

In another notable addition to NNSA’s draft PEIS, the agency said it conducted a classified review of terrorist threats to its major sites to guide future consolidation decisions. For security reasons, NNSA released no details on the conclusions of that review, other than to say that damage from certain types of attacks at certain facilities would exceed projected damage under accident impact analyses conducted for the PEIS.

The draft PEIS will be open to public comment for 90 days.