Nuclear Pits: Death in Its Most Concentrated Form

Nuclear pitEven more than biological weapons such as anthrax, one drop of which may kill thousands, nothing kills more with less volume than a strategic nuclear weapon (as opposed to the smaller tactical, or battlefield, version). At only about five centimeters in radius, the nuclear pit — the core of the weapon which contains the plutonium — could be characterized as death in its most concentrated form ever.

At Focal Points, I frequently about the CMRR-NF, a proposed nuclear facility at Los Alamos said to be intended for the manufacture of nuclear pits. A friend of mine recently took me to task for operating under an unconfirmed presumption. This individual, who worked at Los Alamos on, among other areas, nonproliferation, asked us exactly how we knew that the CMRR-NF was intended for the manufacture of nuclear pits. Turns out, a little research reveals, that, while figuratively speaking it may be, technically it’s not.

We found our first clue at the website of the Los Alamos Study Group, which, as yo may know from my posts, is spearheading the fight to halt the CMRR-NF. In a page on nuclear pits, it urges caution in speaking about the CMRR-NF and nuclear pits

. . . because no one outside [the National Nuclear Security Administration] and LANL [Los Alamos National Laboratory] can be sure exactly what pits LANL is making now or is preparing to make in the future, since these programs are classified. Many details can be withheld even from Congress in a variety of ways. Most workers in these programs have no access to this information.

In fact, on June 25, 2010, in a letter to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Kevin Roark, a spokesman for Los Alamost, wrote:

While [a] June 18 editorial about the construction program at Los Alamos National Laboratory, accurately describes the economic opportunity and controversy associated with the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project, it’s important to clarify the national security purpose of the replacement facility.

Contrary to the editorial’s assertion, plutonium pit manufacturing operations have been, and will continue to be, performed at an existing facility known as the Plutonium Facility. CMRR will be a world-class working laboratory for the science of actinide elements, including plutonium and uranium [to] support work in counter-terrorism, nuclear forensics, and nonproliferation.

Shortly afterward, at Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Jay Coghlan responded (emphasis his).

While being narrowly correct, LANL PR man Kevin Roark is misleading when he claims . . . that plutonium pit production will not take place in the new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project (CMRR). What he fails to disclose is that the Lab is not building just one facility, but instead is creating an integrated manufacturing complex for expanded production for which the CMRR is absolutely key. This complex will [also include] LANL’s existing production facility “PF-4″ with ~$300 million in upgrades. . . . The [CMRR] will be literally next door to PF-4 and linked to it via underground tunnel. While pits are physically manufactured [at PF-4], the [CMRR's] central missions [which include analytical chemistry] are essential operations that ensure . . . plutonium and pit production quality control. The National Nuclear Security Administration’s own documents show that the [CMRR] is being specifically sized to support expanded production of up to 80 pits per year, quadruple LANL’s currently approved rate.

Nothing says “smoking gun” like an underground tunnel. Kidding aside, while the CMRR-NF is not technically a facility for the manufacture of nuclear pits, it’s obviously critical to the process. Those who state that the CMRR-NF is a facility for the manufacture of nuclear pits can be forgiven for speaking in shorthand.

Coghlan adds:

Roark must think that New Mexicans are naïve enough to accept the Lab’s claims that the CMRR is all about “science” even as LANL becomes more and more a production site.

Perhaps not naïve, but like most Americans — including the Obama administration as it brandishes the ratification of New START while simultaneously seeking to fund the CMRR-NF — unprepared to shut the door on nuclear weapons.