Reading Room

"Standing Room Only" at Congressional Briefing on Plutonium Bomb Cores

Posted on Friday, November 22, 2019

Posted by Joseph Rodgers and Marylia Kelley

Standing Room Only

Tri-Valley CAREs and the Union of Concerned Scientists co-hosted a congressional briefing in November that illuminated the risks associated with expanding U.S. plutonium pit (bomb core) production. The event was held in a hearing room in the Rayburn Building of the U.S. House of Representatives. The room was packed with about 45 staffers from house and senate offices as well as representatives from think tanks, academia, and administration offices.

The panel was composed of nuclear weapons and policy experts from a variety of backgrounds; Christopher Hanson from the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Committee, Marylia Kelley from Tri-Valley CAREs, Stephen Young from the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Kingston Reif from the Arms Control Association. Kathy Crandall Robinson from the Arms Control Association moderated the event.

The proposal: The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the semi-autonomous branch of the U.S. Department of Energy that manages the nuclear weapons complex, is seeking congressional funding and authorization to expand plutonium pit production. Pits are the fission explosive cores in nuclear weapons that trigger the thermonuclear component. Since the Rocky Flats Plant was shut down following an FBI raid in 1989, the government has produced 11 or fewer pits per year at the Los Alamos Lab in New Mexico. No pits have been required for the stockpile, or produced, in the past decade. The current plan would radically change this status quo.

The briefing: The experts on our panel generally agreed that NNSA's pit production project is likely to spiral billions of dollars over budget and fall far behind schedule. Panelists cited the unclassified summary of a 2019 report conducted for the Defense Department that recommended that DoD find a way to "best respond" to the near certainty that the NNSA plan to produce 80 pits per year by 2030 will not succeed.

Moreover, several panelists noted that NNSA intends to place its new pits into a new warhead with additional novel features that would, in turn, be placed atop a new intercontinental ballistic missile. The resultant wholly new nuclear weapon system will pour gasoline on the flames of a rapidly-growing global arms race, they warned.

Christopher Hanson spoke first, providing an overview of the status of plutonium pit production in Congress, including in the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act. The House bill would limit plutonium pit production to 30 pits per year by 2030 at one facility, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in NM. The Senate bill fully supports the Trump Administration and NNSA budget request by authorizing production of 80 plutonium pits per year at two facilities, with 30 to be manufactured annually at Los Alamos Lab and 50 at the Savannah River Site in SC.

Kingston Reif then provided a detailed analysis of U.S. nuclear weapons modernization, of which expanded pit production is a significant part. He explained that NNSA's plans for a novel warhead and pits are both elements of a new weapon system that would replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile.

Stephen Young proffered an alternative whereby the U.S. would foreswear the new-design warhead and pits, relying instead on a previously tested, refurbished design already in the stockpile.

Marylia Kelley discussed the cost, safety and proliferation implications of making new plutonium cores, highlighting that NNSA plans to create pits that are different from anything in the arsenal. She noted that the financial cost for the resultant new weapon would top $120 billion, including the missile. Kelley shared information that the novel-design pits and warhead may present certification and other challenges that could lead to U.S. resumption of nuclear explosive testing in Nevada, which ended in 1992. Such an event, she warned, would result in other nuclear armed states likewise resuming explosive testing.

Tri-Valley CAREs is grateful to Representative John Garamendi (D-CA-3) for reserving the hearing room in Rayburn for the briefing. The event was a major success, including the lively Q & A that followed the formal presentations. We are thankful to all who spoke, attended, and participated!

Click here to read Kingston Reif's presentation backgrounder, part 1.

Click here to read Kingston Reif's presentation backgrounder, part 2.

Click here to read Stephen Young's presentation notes.

Click here to read Marylia Kelley's presentation notes.

Select reference documents from Marylia Kelley's presentation follow.

Click here to read the IDA unclassified summary for the Defense Department.

Click here to read the LLNL paper on plutonium pit lifetimes.

Click here to read the NNSA Plutonium Pit Engineering Assessment Results.

Click here to read the Kelley-Rodgers oped in The Hill