By R. Jeffrey Smith. This article originally appeared at The Center for Public Integrity.
The Trump administration wants to move the bulk of America’s future production of plutonium cores for nuclear weapons away from a historic but problem-plagued national laboratory in New Mexico to a sprawling federal site in South Carolina.
The decision, announced late on May 10 in a joint, written announcement by senior Energy and Defense Department officials in Washington, would keep a bit more than a third of the nation’s anticipated future plutonium core production at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the first U.S. nuclear bomb.
But it would relegate the lab—which has struggled to overcome a series of safety problems that forced it to halt virtually all its plutonium production for the last four years—to a considerably smaller role than it has long anticipated. The problems were disclosed by the Center of Public Integrity in 2017, after which the head of Los Alamos announced his retirement.
Under the new plan, Los Alamos would be less a bomb factory and more a research and development center for nuclear weapons, several experts said. That would evidently mean the loss of billions of dollars’ worth of planned new construction at the New Mexico site, which was once expected to bring Los Alamos’s plutonium manufacturing capacity from zero to 80 cores per year by 2030.
The Trump administration’s decision to shift the annual production of 50 of those cores—also known as pits—to the Energy Department’s Savannah River nuclear site, located near Aiken, S.C., was designed in part to have two such sites active at the same time, instead of just one. That would avoid a future hobbling of all nuclear weapons production if Los Alamos experienced major safety problems again.
But it would shift much of the highly sensitive and inherently dangerous work to a site that has also experienced a series of serious safety problems, all documented in internal government reports examined by the Center for Public Integrity. A government report in March, for example, said that some top managers at the Savannah River site were still alarmingly inattentive to safety, and were not heeding the advice of their safety experts despite a series of warnings and a special federal oversight arrangement provoked by a dangerous incident in 2015.
The decision to shift future work to Savannah River had another motive, however—a political and financial one. It is meant to finally put a stake into the heart of another immensely costly project there, which the pit production would replace.
That project, called the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, was backed by multiple presidents and once blessed in a treaty with Russia. But both the Obama and Trump administrations have called it a boondoggle. An estimated $5.4 billion has been spent so far on the so-called MOX plant located near Aiken, largely due to the adroit political maneuvering of South Carolina’s influential congressional delegation.
The MOX plant was conceived as a way to convert plutonium withdrawn from old U.S. nuclear warheads into fuel for civilian nuclear power plants, fulfilling a fanciful swords-into-plowshares idea. But it has experienced huge cost overruns, run into repeated technical problems and management glitches, and is still less than half-finished, years after its projected completion, according to officials in Washington. That’s caused experts and many federal officials to call instead for eliminating the excess plutonium more cheaply through another approach.
The Trump administration this week again affirmed its support for that approach, which calls for diluting the excess plutonium and burying it in salt caverns deeply underground in a remote part of New Mexico. It did so partly to keep the persistent MOX plant cost overruns from eating into funds that Energy Department officials would prefer to allocate to the development and production of new nuclear weapons.
Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, making an aggressive move in the dispute with lawmakers over the MOX plant’s future, on May 10 sent Congress a copy of an order he signed barring further spending on the facility, at least until the path has been fully worked out for transforming it into a future factory for plutonium cores.
The administration, in its written explanation for the overall decision, called it “the best way to manage the cost, schedule, and risk of such a vital undertaking.”
The announcement nonetheless unsettled politicians from the two states. New Mexico’s two Democratic senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, quickly issued a statement complaining that some prior spending promises for construction at Los Alamos will no longer be met. The laboratory will, they noted, only get billions of new dollars in new funds for the production of 30 pits per year, instead of many billions for the production of 80 per year.
Henry McMaster, the Republican governor of South Carolina, meanwhile, joined members of the state’s congressional delegation in expressing disappointment at the plan to halt MOX’s construction. But the planned injection of new funds for the new factory seems likely to cool some of the state’s ire.
Jay Coghlan, who directs the advocacy group Nuclear Watch New Mexico and closely follows weapons activities in the state, questioned why the administration needs to prepare for future production of so many plutonium cores. There is, he said, “no justification to the American taxpayer why the enormous expense of expanded production is necessary.”
Tom Clements, director of the nonprofit Savannah River Watch Site, said the decision “is by no means a foregone conclusion,” and that it is “fraught with technical and cost risks and its operation could result in more chemical and nuclear waste being left” in South Carolina. He said his group will push for an extensive review of its environmental consequences.
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, investigative newsroom in Washington, D.C. More of its national security reporting can be found here.