All About the Pits

Groups say the real story about PU-238 is just coming out


In a pair of landslide votes, both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives--including all four of Idaho's delegates--recently approved the 2006 Water and Energy Development Appropriations Bill. The $30.5 billion package provides funds for projects nationwide, including $40 million for an experimental nuclear reactor to produce electricity and hydrogen at the Idaho National Laboratory. But watchdog groups in Idaho and New Mexico say the bill--which received broad support from Republicans and Democrats alike--quietly betrays a different priority: supporting nuclear weapons production.

The conflict centers on plutonium consolidation at the INL, an issue that already proved controversial at the three raucous Department of Energy public meetings held in Idaho earlier this year. The DOE intends to consolidate the production of non-weapons grade PU-238, a power source for deep space satellites and secret national security projects, at a single INL facility, rather than continue spreading the process between three facilities in INL, New Mexico and Tennessee. The reasons for the consolidation, said DOE spokesman Tim Frazier at the July 28 Boise meeting, include the reduced costs of working at a single facility, as well as fewer of the risks from transportation mishaps or terrorist attacks.

But the Congressional conference report accompanying the appropriations bill gives a different rationale for the proposed consolidation. It reads, "The conferees recognize the need to free up floor space in TA-55 for pit production, and direct the Department to develop a strategy to relocate expeditiously the mission for PU-238 processing from Los Alamos to INL." TA-55, or Technical Area 55, is the section of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico that houses the facility's main plutonium processing facilities. A "pit" is a nuclear bomb's fissile core, a combination of plutonium and explosives that triggers the thermonuclear blast. The bill allocates $8.5 million to prepare INL for consolidation, even though the final environmental impact statement for the proposed site hasn't been released yet.

Currently, Los Alamos is the only site in the U.S. producing nuclear pits, usually at a rate of around a dozen per year, according to the laboratory's Web site. In recent years, nuclear proponents have pushed for the creation of a modern pit facility (MPF), which could increase production up to 450 pits per year. Congress denied funding for the MPF in the appropriations bill, as well as for research into the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a controversial "bunker busting" bomb that has long been pushed by the Bush administration. But according to Jeremy Maxand of the Snake River Alliance, the conference report shows a back-door approach to the same goal.

"They don't get their big bomb factory, so they say, well, let's pump all we can out of Los Alamos," Maxand said. "Bottom line is, this [PU-238] is coming to Idaho not to reduce transportation risks, not to save money on consolidation." Maxand's group has criticized the DOE's consolidation plan since its draft environmental impact statement was released earlier this year. They say the department hadn't justified the need for the project, which is planned to produce at least 330 pounds of plutonium over 30 years, beginning in 2012. In October, the Snake River Alliance and 32 other local and national organizations co-signed a letter to Western governors, senators and state representatives saying the DOE should be required to produce a new impact statement with a better explanation. Now, Maxand says, the reasoning is clear: "They're moving this stuff here so that another facility can expand its ability to make nuclear weapons."

In addition to the money directed to INL, the appropriations bill earmarks $25 million for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which is intended to create replacement parts for nuclear warheads. In a news release last week, New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici said the goal of such programs is to reduce the maintenance costs of existing nuclear weapons while improving their safety and reliability. Maxand and Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, counter that Los Alamos and INL are both part of a larger vision of nuclear proliferation.

"DOE runs a vast enterprise in which individual sites are interlocking parts of an immense complex for the development and production of nuclear weapons," Coghlan said in a release last week. "Even though the Idaho National Laboratory is no longer technically part of the nuclear weapons complex, it is clearly enabling increased weapons production at Los Alamos by taking non-weapons plutonium operations."

Larry Craig, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development that created the appropriations bill, told BW that despite the report, plutonium consolidation at INL isn't connected to pit production. "Consolidating the space battery program at INL is important for safety and for eastern Idaho," he said. "To claim that consolidating non-weapons work at INL provides more square footage at other labs to do weapons work, and therefore we're supporting weapons development, is a specious argument, and perhaps shows that opponents to safe consolidation of Pu-238 work at INL have run out of meaningful arguments."

Senator Mike Crapo's spokesman Lindsay Nothern concurred, saying Idaho's junior senator wasn't thinking about nukes when he voted. "He's obviously supportive of working on the space battery business in Idaho," Nothern said of Crapo. "There are more good things in this bill than bad. And to respond to the Snake River Alliance's claims, this is about nuclear power, not nuclear weapons. We're not aware of any plans to develop any sort of weapons testing or anything like that at Los Alamos."

Nothern said such groups' concerns "are being listened to," but he added that should the occasion arise, Crapo "is not willing to tie this or any president's hands in terms of what they want to do regarding a weapons arsenal."

Representatives for Mike Simpson, who sits on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Butch Otter were not available for comment by press time. The appropriations bill is waiting at press time to be signed by President Bush.