A main component of nuclear weapons was poised to be built in New Mexico after federal regulators granted approval for a plan to prepare Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) for the work.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, announced earlier this month it approved LANL’s project to prepare areas of the lab to be used in plutonium pit production – a project known as LAP4.
Plutonium pits are hollow spheres of plutonium that when compressed using explosives cause a nuclear detonation, per a DOE report.
The pits were first used in the 1940s during the Manhattan Project, the report read, used to detonate atomic bombs tested at the Trinity Site in south-central New Mexico and then in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in Japan – largely credited with ending World War II.
Since the war ended, Los Alamos’ pit production was limited to research purposes, and from 2007 to 2011 the lab produced pits to replace those in 31 warheads carried on U.S. military submarines.
Between 1952 and 1989, most of the plutonium pits in the U.S. were generated at the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver amid the Cold War with a peak nuclear stockpile of 31,225 weapons outfitted with the pits reported in 1967, read the report.
Rocky Flats was shut down in 1989, and after concerns that the pits produced since the 1980s or earlier would begin to deteriorate over time, Los Alamos was called to make new ones.
But to prepare LANL for the work, a project to remove existing equipment and glove boxes was needed to make way for pit manufacturing equipment.
That work was intended to begin this spring via a project known as the Decontamination and Decommissioning Subproject, the first of five operations to get the site ready.
Opponents call for environmental review of plutonium operations
The effort to resume producing plutonium pits and thus nuclear weapons at the New Mexico lab and in South Carolina as met with controversy from government officials and watchdog groups in both states opposing the projects.
Santa Fe City Councilors passed a resolution last year calling for a “site-wide” environmental impact statement to be conducted and any safety issued be resolved and certified by the federal government before pit production was increased.
Nuclear Watch New Mexico and Savannah River Site Watch subsequently in June 2021 filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina’s Aiken Division against the DOE and NNSA, arguing pit production should not be increased until site-wide environmental analysis were conducted at both facilities.
In southeastern New Mexico is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a repository for low-level transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste – clothing materials and equipment irradiated during nuclear activities.
But the litigants argued WIPP was already at limited capacity and its current permit with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) specified the repository would have to cease waste disposal by 2024 and begin the decommissioning process.
The DOE last year submitted a permit renewal application to NMED that removed the 2024 closure date, leaving WIPP’s lifetime largely open ended.
Read more at Nuclear weapons development coming soon to Los Alamos National Laboratory amid safety concerns