It’s an enormously complex, and deeply depressing, tale. And it just got worse.
A report leaked to the Santa Fe New Mexican suggests that a “nuclear weapons project long expected to move forward at Los Alamos National Laboratory could end up being more costly and taking longer to execute at the lab than at other sites.” The document, prepared by the National Nuclear Security Administration, estimates that constructing a “new facility at Idaho National Laboratory … would not cost more than $6.9 billion, and relocating the project to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina would not exceed $6.7 billion — almost $1 billion less than constructing the facility at Los Alamos.”
The issue is, literally, the pits. The “triggers … at the heart of modern thermonuclear weapons,” healthy plutonium pits are essential to maintaining an effective nuclear deterrent. But Washington’s central facility for the devices, the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, was raided by the FBI and EPA in 1989. (Rampant environmental and safety problems closed the site for good.) Los Alamos got the pit assignment in the 1990s, as the Cold War wound down and treaties began to significantly reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
But pits need to be maintained, tested, refurbished, and possibly replaced. (There’s a fierce debate over how long the devices last, but let’s not jump down that rabbit hole.) The U.S. Department of Energy has “put forward at least seven … pit production expansion plans” in the last few decades. Unsurprisingly, the lack of direction has been costly for taxpayers.
On several occasions, the Rio Grande Foundation has joined forces with the Los Alamos Study Group to highlight the cost overruns and slipped deadlines of LANL’s pit-oriented Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement project. Last year, the Government Accountability Office warned that managers’ claims about production and schedules couldn’t be trusted. Jay Coghlan, of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, went further, calling the complex “a house of cards.”
Now, the New Mexican has exposed the NNSA’s finding that LANL’s pit work could be “nearly a decade behind schedule and … cost over half a billion dollars more than if the project were moved to another site.”
The feds’ nuclear architecture is hideously mismanaged. From Yucca Mountain to the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility to the Uranium Processing Facility, atomic technocrats have found countless ways to waste countless dollars. If plutonium-pit work needs to be transferred out of New Mexico in order to save $1 billion, so be it. The Land of Enchantment’s congressional delegation will whine, but perhaps losing the project will provide one more reason to kick New Mexico’s dangerous dependency on D.C.