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The Case Against Increasing Plutonium Pit Production Capacity

By Nickolas Roth

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Executive Summary

Though we won’t know for sure until the fiscal year 2013 budget is released on February 13, reports suggest that the Obama administration has decided to delay construction of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s multi-billion dollar facility, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF). The analysis that has been written about this facility has predominantly focused on good government issues like the high cost of the project, bureaucratic mismanagement, and the irrelevance of the facility to maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal. However, the CMRR-NF also has implications for U.S. national security and disarmament commitments. The following will summarize the origins and purpose of the facility, its significance in terms of U.S. nuclear strategy, and potential consequences. Finally, it will explain why the administration’s apparent decision to delay the facility is ultimately the prudent decision.

The key findings are:

  • While the CMRR-NF will be used for a range of activities, it can also be used to support an increase plutonium pit production capacity.
  • The Obama administration Nuclear Posture Review endorsed the Bush administration’s concept of a responsive infrastructure, restating that new nuclear warhead production facilities will serve as a “hedge against technical or geopolitical surprise.”
  • By the time of its scheduled completion date of 2024, most nuclear weapons in the arsenal will have already been refurbished or in the middle of a refurbishment.
  • Increased capacity would inhibit opportunities for increasing security by altering perceptions about the U.S. commitment to reductions or disarmament.
  • Given the potential risks involved, the current budget environment presents an opportunity for Congress to reevaluate whether it is necessary to move ahead with this facility.

What is the Impact of the CMRR-NF?

Last year, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is responsible for maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons and their supporting infrastructure, announced that it would proceed with a new plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The new facility, the CMRR-NF, was intended to be the centerpiece of the Department of Energy’s plan to increase the United States’ ability to produce, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, newly designed nuclear warheads with entirely new nuclear and non-nuclear components. According to the latest estimates, construction of the CMRR-NF is likely to cost up to $5.8 billion. Given that the original estimated cost of the facility in 2001 was $375 million and that the design of the facility will not be completed until late in 2012, the final cost is likely to exceed the current estimate.

Los Alamos National Laboratory is spread across 37 square miles that are divided into dozens of zones called “Technical Areas.” The CMRR-NF is slated to be part of a group of facilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Technical Area 55 (TA-55) that are used for plutonium production. According to the NNSA, the steps needed to increase production capacity include upgrades to TA-55’s Plutonium Facility-4 (PF-4) and liquid waste treatment facility, and, most importantly, construction of the CMRR-NF. While NNSA argues that these facilities will be used for a range of activities, they can also be used to increase plutonium pit production capacity.

Plutonium pits are part of the explosive cores of nuclear warheads. Current pit production rates are limited by statute to a maximum of 20 pits a year. By moving existing tools and machines around in the PF-4, Los Alamos plans to increase that capacity to 50 pits by 2015.

NNSA has stated that the CMRR-NF is merely replacing an aging building, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR) facility. However, planning documents indicate that the new facility will incorporate increased capabilities. According to the CMRR SPEIS, “A full suite of materials characterization capabilities was previously performed in the CMR building, but now only a small subset of those activities is performed…If the decision is made to construct a new CMRR-NF, the full suite of materials characterization capabilities would be re-established.” Rather than assessing the current needs of the United States, the CMRR-NF would restore capacity originally intended to support a Cold War sized nuclear arsenal.

In other words, if the CMRR-NF is built, it will provide laboratory space for activities and nuclear materials (primarily plutonium) currently housed at PF-4 and the CMR facility. Additionally, the CMRR-NF project will include the construction of underground tunnels (with space for a plutonium vault) linking various buildings at TA-55, which would allow plutonium pit samples to be transported more quickly. Together these changes would create one interconnected facility, further facilitating expanded pit production at TA-55.

Origins of the CMRR-NF and Expanded Pit Production

The CMRR-NF was meant to be a key part of NNSA’s goal to create a “responsive infrastructure,” which also includes construction of a new multi-billion dollar Uranium Processing Facility at Y-12 in Tennessee. In 2002, the Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review argued that, as the United States reduced its arsenal, the infrastructure increasingly needed to be capable of addressing unforeseen geopolitical and technical issues. As part of this plan, the Bush administration sought funding for new production facilities like the Modern Pit Facility (MPF) and newly designed nuclear weapons like the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) and the Robust Earth Nuclear Penetrator (RNEP). The MPF would have had the capability to support a production capacity of 125 to 450 plutonium pits annually. In 2004, Congress denied funding for the MPF and, in 2005, also denied funding for the RNEP. At the time, House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Hobson (R-OH) stated, "Much of the DOE weapons complex is still sized to support a Cold War stockpile. The NNSA needs to take a 'time-out' on new initiatives until it completes a review of its weapons complex in relation to security needs, budget constraints, and this new stockpile plan."

However, the Bush administration’s goal of developing new production facilities and the RRW under the rubric of a “responsive infrastructure” continued. On October 19, 2006, the NNSA released its notice of intent for Complex 2030 (later renamed Complex Transformation), a comprehensive restructuring of the nuclear weapons complex that would expand nuclear weapons production capacity by building new facilities like the CMRR. Although, smaller in scope than the MPF, the CMRR could still support new nuclear weapons designs like the RRW. In his statement before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee in 2006, then NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Tom D’Agostino said that RRW was the “enabler” for “transforming” the nuclear weapons complex. Since 2006, plans for Complex Transformation have moved forward unabated.

Early in 2010, the Obama administration released its own Nuclear Posture Review. While it pledged not to develop new nuclear warheads, it endorsed the Bush administration’s concept of a responsive infrastructure, restating that new nuclear warhead production facilities will serve as a “hedge against technical or geopolitical surprise.” During the Bush administration, the proposals for new nuclear warhead production facilities were evaluated in the context of RRW and the RNEP. However, in light of the Obama administration’s pledge the rationale and potential impact of these facilities ought to be subject to greater scrutiny.

Is the Responsive Infrastructure Justified?

Given the construction schedule, it is unclear how NNSA will utilize the CMRR to address potential technical issues involving the stockpile. The CMRR will not be operational in time to support most of the nuclear refurbishments currently being planned. By the time of its scheduled completion date of 2024, all nuclear weapons in the arsenal except for the W80 cruise missile and W87 warhead will have already been refurbished or in the middle of a refurbishment (see a helpful graphic depicting this here). Additionally, given the 2007 findings of the JASONs, an independent group of technical experts that consult for Congress on security issues, that existing plutonium pits have a minimum lifetime of 100 years, new plutonium pits are not currently needed to reliably maintain the U.S. stockpile. In 2009, the JASON group further strengthened the case against new plutonium pits when it issued a report concluding that the, “Lifetimes of today's nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence, by using approaches similar to those employed in LEPs to date.”

There are also many unanswered questions about whether a responsive infrastructure is capable of productively addressing geopolitical surprise. Administration officials have said that increased production capacity is intended to serve as a hedge against a resurgent Russia or an expansionist China. However, neither the Bush nor Obama administrations have presented compelling scenarios in which the United States would be safer with increased nuclear weapons production capacity. China has a small nuclear arsenal and a limited amount of plutonium, which limits its ability to engage in an arms race with the United States. Russia is currently reducing the overall size of its nuclear arsenal.

It is more likely that increased pit production capacity would inhibit opportunities for increasing security by altering perceptions about the U.S. commitment to reductions or disarmament, complicating efforts to reach an agreement with Russia on lower numbers and simultaneously undermining the nonproliferation regime.

Implications of Increasing Nuclear Weapons Production Capacity on Irreversible Nuclear Reductions

Irreversible reductions through the dismantlement of nuclear weapons – which typically refers to the act of taking apart a weapon so that it can no longer be detonated – are important because they provide additional stability and predictability as countries draw down their nuclear forces. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin discussed this issue at the Helsinki summit in 1997. According to Harvard Professor Matt Bunn, both “agreed that a START III agreement should include “measures relating to the transparency of strategic nuclear warhead inventories and the destruction of strategic nuclear warheads . . . to promote the irreversibility of deep reductions including prevention of a rapid increase in the number of warheads.” However, dismantlement rates provide an incomplete view of irreversible nuclear reductions because they do not indicate the extent to which a country can reconstitute its arsenal.

A more accurate measurement of a country’s commitment to irreversible reductions is what Bunn refers to as “net dismantlement,” or the sum of nuclear weapons manufactured minus the number of nuclear weapons dismantled. Dr. Bunn estimates that Russia dismantles approximately 400-500 warheads per year and remanufactures approximately 200, which includes new uranium and plutonium components, giving Russia a net dismantlement rate of between 200-300 weapons per year. If one is to use net dismantlement as a way of assessing whether a country is meeting its international disarmament commitments, an equally important derivative of that measurement should be whether a country is increasing its capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons, as is the case with the CMRR.

Some experts argue that U.S. construction of new production facilities is a good thing because these facilities would help close the gap in production capacity with Russia and enhance stability as both countries reduce their arsenals. This argument implies that the United States is at a strategic disadvantage because its nuclear weapons complex has a lower production rate than the Russian complex. However, Russian weapons have shorter design lifetimes than U.S. weapons do, so Russia needs to have a larger production capacity in order to maintain its existing stockpile size. The United States does not technically need a large production capacity to maintain its stockpile because it does not remanufacture its nuclear weapons on a regular basis. By increasing its production capacity, the United States makes a statement about its perception of the strategic climate, not about its approach to maintaining the arsenal. In order for the United States and Russia to achieve deep reductions (say to below 1000 total warheads, each), increased transparency about each side’s nuclear weapons production complexes will be necessary. The CMRR-NF will likely further complicate Russian concerns.

Implications of Increasing Nuclear Weapons Production Capacity on the NPT Regime

A commitment on the part of the nuclear weapons states to irreversible reductions is a significant issue for most of the non-nuclear weapon state members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). It was one of the 13 key commitments agreed to by nuclear weapon states at 2000 NPT Review Conference. The Non-Aligned Movement’s opening statement at the 2010 NPT Review Conference proclaimed: “We encourage Nuclear Weapons States to bring about such reductions applying the principles of transparency, irreversibility, and verifiability at a significantly faster pace” and “it is unacceptable that Nuclear Weapon States and those remaining outside the NPT continue to retain and even modernize their nuclear arsenals.” Similarly, the Middle Powers Initiative, a coalition of non-governmental organizations that works with specific states to reduce and eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons, argued, “Building weapons facilities that among other things provide the capability for expanding arsenals runs contrary to the 2000 principle of irreversibility.” If it increases production capacity, the United States could weaken the NPT regime. NPT member states may, once again, begin to question the United States’ disarmament commitments, as many countries did during the Bush administration, especially if the United States does not achieve deeper nuclear reductions.

Near Term Solutions

Regardless of whether or not the CMRR-NF is funded in the Fiscal Year 2013 budget, the United States should consider near term steps to minimize the potentially destabilizing affects of this new nuclear weapons production facility. At a minimum, it should be more transparent about how it would use its new plutonium production facility. This issue came up a Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Committee hearing earlier this year. When asked by Chairwoman Senator Dianne Feinstein, NNSA Administrator Tom D’agostino was unable to say how many plutonium pits would be produced at Los Alamos, what kinds of pits would be produced, and for what purpose. This was not a lapse of memory by Administrator D’agostino. NNSA plans to build this facility before it decides how it will be used. If the murky rationale for spending $5.8 billion dollars or more on a larger pit production capability concerns Senator Feinstein, how are military planners in Russia supposed to interpret the CMRR-NF? What are other members of the NPT supposed to think about U.S. commitments to reduce its own nuclear arsenal?

Given the potential risks involved, the current budget environment presents an opportunity for Congress to reevaluate whether it is necessary to move ahead with this facility. This was demonstrated by the Senate Energy and Water Appropriation Committee’s decision to ask NNSA to submit a plan “that would identify the consequences to cost, scope, and schedule of delaying project implementation and the impact of sequencing construction of these two major facilities on stockpile requirements.” At a minimum, delaying the CMRR-NF would provide an opportunity to answer some of the fundamental questions about the facilities purpose and need.

But, perhaps more importantly, it would provide the opportunity for policy makers to reevaluate the wisdom of moving forward with a facility that, by increasing the United States’ ability to produce nuclear weapons, could have negative consequences for national security.

Nickolas Roth is a Policy Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

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