Particle Beams

"Luminous Quanta of Divine Intelligence…" dispelling the nuclear delusion

CMRR is no more, but the pits go marching on

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Lab is on the Pajarito Plateau, above the Russian River

OVER THE HILL? Above the Rio Grande, Los Alamos Lab makes plutonium pits

In February, the President’s 2013 budget request denied funding for the proposed new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility (CMRR) at Los Alamos for the next five years.

“We look on it more as a deferment than a cancellation,” said Steve Fong, NNSA Project Manager for CMRR, at a September 26 hearing in Los Alamos.

Meanwhile, the Lab was directed to find a less expensive way to produce plutonium pits to meet the goal of modernizing the nuclear force which, as the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has been insisting, and Hawks have been believing, is deteriorating. Whether or not this is true is arguable. As Willard Hunter, a retired Sandia lab scientist told me, “Every year they take them out and polish them, make sure they still work.” The challenge is to do that without testing them; all nuclear testing has been outlawed since 1992. Hence armaments makers must rely on proven designs.

The day after the budget was released, lab director Charles McMillan distributed a statement to staff at LANL assuring them that the lab would fulfill its mission; and in August, the lab produced an outline of how it proposed to do that, “Plan B.” Much of Plan B is classified, but resourceful activists have been able to piece together the broad outlines. For just under a billion (a bargain when compared to the projected $5.4 billion to build CMRR, but still a lot of dollars when you look at the swelling deficit) the lab proposes to extend the nearly completed radiation lab, RLUOB, built as an adjunct to the CMRR, and build a tunnel to the nearby plutonium facility, PF4, so that pits can be transported safely from their place of construction for certification.

The production of pits is a big deal. It requires the engagement of some 700 employees to produce just one pit, according to an article in a Los Alamos publication entitled, “The Perfect Pit.”

All of this might be impressive as sophisticated technological achievement were it not for its end result — the destruction of an entire city with a single bomb. Pits are the cores of thermonuclear weapons, triggering a reaction be far greater than the one the world witnessed in Hiroshima. The reaction would be so big, in fact, that during the Cold War both the USSR and the US hesitated to use them (amazing grace!), and a theory of deterrence emerged from the Rand Institute that the trillions we each invested in the thousands and thousands of gigantic bombs had the purpose of stopping the other country from using theirs.

Although unverifiable – we don’t know for certain that it was the existence of more and more bombs that actually stopped either nation – deterrence became the mantra of national security wonks for whom bomb production was deemed necessary and unavoidable in a nuclear global environment. In other words, however much we might wish it to be different, there’s no other way.

After 911, George W. Bush made some significant changes to the strategy of deterrence. Since the US had not used a nuclear bomb in its successive wars since Hiroshima, it was beginning to look like we would never dare to use one, and terrorists who made no secret of their intention to acquire – and use — nuclear bombs thought (perhaps) that the Great Satan had become a wuss. Apparently determined to show the world that such was not the case, “Dubya” Bush, in his Nuclear Posture Review, a policy statement each new president is required to produce, made several significant changes in nuclear policy of which the public is generally not aware.

One was to include conventional weapons and nuclear weapons in the same discussion under the same criteria. This had never been done, with nuclear weapons always considered to be so dangerous as to be considered separately.

The second was to propose the production of smaller, “reliable, credible and useable” nuclear warheads. The operative word here is, of course, is useable.

Though lower level managers at nuclear labs may continue to speak of deterrence as the national security policy of the United States, it should be clear that things have changed; the purpose of national policy is not to deter a presumably rational enemy from attacking us, but rather to show any enemy – nuclear or non-nuclear – that we’ve got the stuff to actually use them.

Here is a quote from a policy paper issued in 1995, during the Reagan Administration:

Deterrence can’t be just a theory, a doctrine, a concept, a strategy…[It is] a process that goes beyond the rational… It must affect the emotions, as well as the rational mind, of an adversary…we must communicate in the strongest ways possible the unbreakable link between our vital interests and the potential harm that will be directly attributable to anyone who damages (or even credibly threatens to damage) that which we hold of value…Deterrence is thus a form of bargaining which exploits a capability for inflicting damage at such a level as to truly cause hurt far greater than military defeat…It should ultimately create the fear of extinction…A threat is most compelling when an enemy cannot rationalize away the destruction, pain, suffering, and chaos you are threatening to unleash if deterrence fails. “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence,” 1995 (emphasis added)

No longer a stance to prevent attack, “deterrence” has become a misnomer that actually means a threat, and it was apparently the intention of the Bush administration to make the threat credible.

What does this have to do with plutonium pit production at LANL? A great deal. As will be seen, “modernization” actually operates as a euphemism for creating those smaller, tactical and therefore useable nuclear weapons – bombs that would still be three times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped on Japan.

Modernization is a sleight-of-hand solution to a tricky problem created by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which we signed in 1970 along with the majority of the world’s nations, both nuclear and non-nuclear. The NPT requires of nuclear powers that they cease to create new weapons and instead make moves to decrease their stockpiles.

It’s possible that we might not have complied with the treaty requirement, but with testing prohibited, it’s double jeopardy. Without testing, new designs might not be reliable.

Hence it has been the official policy of the US that we will not make new ones.

But how can we fulfill the mandates of the Bush nuclear posture for smaller, tactical nuclear weapons without making new ones?

That’s where modernization comes in – and new pits, which are the critical means for producing a credible nuclear force with weapons that are useable.

More in Part II.



Written by stephaniehiller

October 3, 2012 at 6:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Thank you for your committed effort to report on the evolution of nuclear issues.

    Your bona fides on this vital topic is always a great read. While I am certain life on earth would be just fine with no nuclear armament, nor nuclear generators, since we have them it’s vital to know the truth about their production and use.

    Are the already manufactured weapons, moreover the “pits”, audited and tracked?

    Do we know how many ‘pieces’ of the stockpiles and or future stockpiles, are sold and to whom?

    How can an audit be mandated and monitored for integrity of the answers?

    Charles Pixley

    October 3, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    • Good questions, Charlie, and thanks for your comments. Not my area of expertise (if I have one!) but I’m fairly certain that the inventory of weapons, including pits, must be well maintained. It’s the waste that is not. At LANL some 300 kilograms of plutonium are unaccounted for, according to Arjun Makijhani ( very knowledgeable. I don’t know about sales. I don’t think they would go into our stockpile if going to be sold, but manufacturers may make contracts with buyers, I’m sure they do. All of this could be murkier than I expect, just like the rest of it. There are giant scandals involving contractors, financial audits, and items just stolen from the lab. You might enjoy a book by a policeman who was in charge of security up there for awhile. His name is Walp, Implosion at Los Alamos. Anything could be going on…


      October 3, 2012 at 9:49 pm

  2. […] (Part II of last week’s article) […]

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