By GREG MELLOLos Alamos, N.M.
It has been over 20 years since the end of the cold war, and yet the United States continues to spend enormous sums on its nuclear arsenal and related programs. In fact, rather than looking for ways to save money in this budget-conscious time, the National Nuclear Security Administration is asking for even more money to build one of its most unnecessary projects yet: a second big plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The facility, which the administration says it needs to produce more nuclear warhead cores, called pits, would cost between $4 billion and $6 billion to build, and roughly a quarter billion a year to operate. Strikingly, despite the decade (and about $450 million) spent developing the proposal, the administration still doesn’t have a firm cost estimate or a final design. That hasn’t kept it from asking for money, though: this year it is requesting an additional $270 million to continue planning, part of a proposed $621 million increase for warhead management.
A better cost estimate may be available in early 2013, when the final design nears completion, though the administration hopes to begin construction long before that, in January 2012, if Congress allows it. Even after that, experience strongly suggests that further cost increases are likely between now and 2023, when the project is expected to finally come online. By then it will be needed even less than it is now; by the time it is completed the entire nuclear arsenal, except for cruise missile warheads, will have been successfully upgraded without this investment.
The laboratory needs fewer grand ambitions, not more space. Its existing plutonium facility, which has about twice the space inside as the proposed one, already has a high-capacity manufacturing line that takes up just a third of the building. Why does the nuclear administration need to produce more pits, let alone at a faster rate? Scientists agree that the existing stock of pits will last a century or so without replacement. There are also large reserves of extra warheads and pits for each delivery system, more than enough to replace every warhead and bomb deployed.
The nuclear administration says it needs more capacity to facilitate large-scale production of pits for “replacement,” i.e., to produce new types of warheads. It optimistically claims that such new designs can be certified in the absence of nuclear testing. The new building would be built to handle the large steel tanks needed for the explosive “subcritical tests” and “scaled experiments” that are considered helpful in certifying these otherwise untested replacement warheads.
The new building would also house a large new vault containing “the plutonium stores of the nation,” as Don Cook, the administration’s deputy director, has said. Yet the administration already has nuclear storage facilities in South Carolina and Nevada, which are more than sufficient. Meanwhile, it is spending additional billions on other questionable plutonium facilities to dispose of excess plutonium around the country and is even emptying a large modern plutonium facility in Livermore, Calif.
One reason the facility’s estimated costs continue to rise is a new appreciation of how the region’s seismic profile affects the design of the facility. The proposed facility would sit above a thick layer of loose volcanic ash, which amplifies seismic accelerations and provides little resistance to sliding. The entire Los Alamos laboratory complex sits on a fault system capable of shallow magnitude 7.3 earthquakes that give rise to sharp high accelerations.
To top it off, the administration is still not even sure how to design the building: whether to anchor the bunkerlike structure deep in the mesa or let it “float” up near the surface, its upper part protected by earthen berms.
There are alternatives — simpler, faster, cheaper and safer ones — but the nuclear administration refuses to examine them. For example, it could make better use of existing facilities, which were very costly to acquire and are very expensive to maintain and make safe, but which are not being used efficiently. But the nuclear administration and its predecessor agency within the Department of Energy have been continuously on the Government Accountability Office’s watch list of agencies most prone to waste and poor management since the list began 20 years ago.
Even setting these criticisms aside, the case for building more nuclear weapons, at a time when the United States’ arsenal is already by far the most sophisticated and most expensive in the world is growing harder to make. The Congressional supercommittee, which will soon wrap up its plans for cutting federal spending, might or might not want to touch the politics of maintaining our nuclear arsenal — but cutting resources for this dangerous and unnecessary project should be something every member of Congress can get behind.