U.S. Produces First Plutonium Pit Since 1989

Christine Kucia

Los Alamos National Laboratory announced April 22 that it has produced the first U.S. plutonium pit since 1989 that complies with nuclear stockpile specifications, thus re-establishing the U.S. capability to remanufacture or produce new plutonium cores for nuclear weapons.

The United States has not had the ability to produce pits, which trigger a fission reaction that sets off a thermonuclear weapon, since the closure of the plutonium pit facility at Rocky Flats, Colorado, in 1989. The Department of Energy decided in 1996 to restart pit manufacturing on a small scale at Los Alamos, and since then, the laboratory has been re-establishing the processes to create pits that comply with U.S. stockpile requirements. The laboratory built the pit, named Qual-1, using 42 processes required to make a certifiable pit.

The processes were qualified in December 2002 to meet the standards for pit production, but the pit itself must be certified separately before it can be used in a nuclear weapon. “Our next challenge is to carry out the required experiments, analyses, and computer modeling so we can certify that this newly manufactured pit will perform reliably in the stockpile, without conducting underground nuclear tests,” said Pete Nanos, interim director of Los Alamos. The Energy Department estimates that certification of Los Alamos-produced pits will be complete by 2007.

Qual-1 is the first pit manufactured under the program to replace pits in W-88 warheads, which are used on submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Several more pits will be produced at Los Alamos each year through 2007 for the certification process and to establish the ability to begin manufacturing up to 10 pits annually by 2007 for nuclear weapons or for testing purposes. Eventually, Los Alamos could produce 20-50 pits each year.

According to Nanos, “All of these manufacturing processes meet today’s health, safety, and environmental regulations, so some materials and processes differ from those used at Rocky Flats.” The former U.S. pit production facility was shut down in 1989 following environmental safety and occupational health violations.

As Los Alamos establishes a limited pit production capability, the Bush administration is pursuing a larger plan to establish a more robust pit production capacity. John Gordon, then-head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, announced in February 2002 that a new facility will be established for plutonium pit production, slated for completion in 2018. The Modern Pit Facility will allow the United States to produce at least 125 pits per year, which officials claim are needed to replace aging pits or those used in diagnostic tests. (See ACT, March 2003.) Critics of pit production efforts claim that U.S. reserves are sufficient for U.S. stockpile maintenance needs.