Landfills, Nuclear and Toxic Waste

Plutonium Pits (Nuclear Bomb Cores)

The U.S. government plans to more than quadruple the production of plutonium pits at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site. To date, the Department of Energy has refused to fully examine the environmental and safety impacts of this cross-country plan, which would create massive quantities of dangerous and radioactive material, put hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on the line, risk a new nuclear arms race and violate the nation's foundational environmental law.
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What is a plutonium pit?

A plutonium pit is the bowling ball-sized radioactive trigger of nuclear warheads. The Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, the nation’s producer of pits between 1952-1989, manufactured more than 1,000 pits per year before the site was raided by the FBI and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for environmental crimes and permanently closed in 1992.

Currently, less than 20 pits per year are produced at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico.  


What is the Department of Energy’s pit production plan?  

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the semi-autonomous nuclear weapons agency within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), wants these new plutonium pits so they can create brand new nuclear warheads for new intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Unfortunately, the $100 billion “Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent” (GBSD), a new missile for which the first new pits would be made, is being driven by intense industry lobbying and politicians from states that will benefit most from it economically, rather than a clear assessment of the purpose of the new missile.

In all, it appears that DOE aims to make new pits for several new warheads and for the existing stockpile of almost 4,000 deployed and reserve weapons, which would contain around 12 metric tons of plutonium. These weapons are part of U.S. plans to maintain readiness to fight a full-scale nuclear war.

The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review proposed producing at least 80 pits per year by 2030, including 30 or more at LANL and 50 or more at the Savannah River Site (SRS).

Though it is not written into law, NNSA announced pursuit of this dual-site strategy in May 2018 and has rushed forward with that effort despite lack of proper environmental review. At SRS, pits will be produced at a repurposed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX facility.

Aside from not being designed for pit production, the MOX facility was never completed due to massive cost overruns and mismanagement, resulting in the loss of $7 billion dollars in taxpayer money.

Congress has so far avoided investigating both NNSA and contractors for their roles in the bungled project.

What’s the problem?

The DOE has failed to undertake a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) which is necessary to fully analyze the direct, long-range and cumulative environmental impacts of producing pits across multiple DOE sites.

Without undertaking this required analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), DOE cannot make an informed decision about its plans, nor assess alternatives that will reduce or eliminate the significant risks to human and environmental health posed by the project.

In early 2020, the NNSA concluded it was unnecessary to conduct a broad, nationwide review of this two-site strategy. Instead, the agency is relying on a supplemental analysis of an outdated programmatic environmental impact statement completed more than a decade ago, along with a separate review done for SRS alone.

Additionally, the need for new nuclear weapons and their contribution to a new nuclear arms race has been downplayed in environmental documents prepared so far.

Safety concerns

An induction furnace is used in the plutonium casting process at the TA-55 foundry at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. You can see the molten plutonium exiting the crucible into a mold.

The production of nuclear bomb cores entails processing large quantities of hazardous and radioactive materials and is plagued by a long history of safety issues. Other concerns include the risk of lethal accidents, fires, radioactive and hazardous waste releases that could affect downstream and downwind communities, and uncertain future radioactive waste disposal that could strand yet more plutonium in South Carolina.

While plutonium waste, or so-called transuranic waste, could also be stranded at SRS, it is clear that the leading option for associated low-level nuclear waste is disposal in unlined trenches at SRS.

More than 20,000 pits already exist and are stored at DOE’s Pantex Plant in Texas. Additionally, the need for new plutonium pits is questionable. The JASON group of experts said in their 2007 Pit Lifetime report for the NNSA that most primary types have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years as regards aging of plutonium. This means that pit replacement in warheads has not been shown to be needed and that long-term pit reuse is possible.

South Carolina has never produced pits

MOX plant at Savannah River Site. Photo credit: High Flyer, special to SRS Watch

The Savannah River Site is a sprawling, 310-square-mile DOE nuclear reservation located in Aiken, Allendale and Barnwell counties. During the Cold War, SRS produced tritium and plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. SRS was named an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund priority clean-up site in 1989 partly due to its 37 million gallons of leftover radioactive waste.

SRS has never produced pits and will face a monumental technical challenge if pit production at SRS continues to be pursued. And yet DOE is seeking to convert the site’s Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility into a pit factory even though it was originally intended to convert plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. After a decade in the making and the wasting of $7 billion taxpayer dollars, the project was finally terminated by NNSA in 2018.

In January 2021, contractor Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS) turned over to DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration plans, in the so-called "Critical Decision-1" document package, to convert the MOX plant at SRS to nuclear bomb production. While SRNS has indicated the go-ahead for the facility could be given by DOE as early as June 2021, there are indications that plans for pit production are under review by the Biden administration and that a new Nuclear Posture Review will both reduce the number of pits to be produced and eliminate SRS as the second pit production site. It is expected that new nuclear warheads and pit production will be hotly debated in congress.

South Carolina, which currently stores 11.5 metric tons of plutonium at SRS, is already considered the nation’s plutonium dumping ground and pit production will only increase its plutonium inventory, along with more waste that needs to be treated, stored and disposed of.

The most urgent issue, and what the SRS site is intended for, is the removal of legacy radioactive waste and environmental cleanup.


Environmental justice ignored

Predominantly low-income and African American communities reside near the Savannah River Site. Pueblo communities and other minority populations live around the Los Alamos National Lab.

But the supplemental analysis on expanded pit production at Los Alamos waves aside environmental justice concerns and concludes that “the pit production mission would not result in disproportionately high and adverse impacts on low-income or minority groups.”

The EIS prepared on SRS pit production included a cursory discussion of possible environmental justice impacts and concludes that “cumulative environmental justice impacts are not expected.”

The lack of substantive analysis of environmental impacts from pit production and associated waste processing and disposal at LANL and SRS as well at other locations to be a glaring oversight that must be corrected in the mandated PEIS.

A leaking waste drum sitting outside on asphalt (permeable) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Photo credit: Tri-Valley CAREs

On April 21, 2021, we sent a letter (download below) on behalf of a multi-state coalition to DOE and NNSA saying this lack of review violates the National Environmental Policy Act and would saddle already-burdened communities nearby the two DOE sites with significant quantities of toxic and radioactive waste, contravening President Biden’s executive order of making environmental justice a part of the mission of every agency.

“The federal government appears ready to embark on this significant change in U.S. nuclear policy without studying the cross-country risks and environmental justice impacts, which indicates that the health and safety of workers and downwind and downriver communities are not worth the consideration or protection they deserve,” said SCELP staff attorney Leslie Lenhardt.


The organizations listed in the letter include:

Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety

Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions

Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition

The Imani Group

Honor Our Pueblo Existence

Tewa Women United

Nuclear Watch New Mexico

Savannah River Site Watch

Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment

Misinformation and lack of public awareness or participation

A critical problem with the U.S. government’s refusal to prepare a PEIS is that the public is either ignorant or being provided misinformation about the breadth of the planned project.

Some have described the construction at the Savannah River Site as a “renovation,” which misleads the public into believing there will only be minor changes necessary to the partially constructed MOX building, instead of a massive price tag to fully repurpose it. The February 2020 cost estimate of $4.6 billion has now skyrocketed to $11.1 billion, as confirmed in the NNSA's budget request of May 28, 2021. And, the 2030 date for production of 50 pits per year has now slipped significantly, to as late as 2035. Given DOE's chronic inability to manage complex, costly projects, these extraordinary cost overruns and schedule delays are a bad omen for the SRS pit project and its supporters.

The public has had little involvement in this decision-making process and the U.S. government has not taken the time to take a hard look at this major shift in policy despite the already documented waste of taxpayers’ money.


What can be done?

We are calling on the DOE and NNSA to conduct a PEIS that comprehensively analyzes the safety and environmental impacts and need of producing these cores across the multiple sites.

Since 2019, Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Savannah River Site Watch and Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment have called on DOE and NNSA to prepare the mandated PEIS but have been rebuffed with little explanation.

President Joe Biden's administration has the ability to reverse course on pits and we strongly advise that course of action. We are ready to take legal action under NEPA if DOE and NNSA continue to refuse to undertake this statutorily required task.

Update

On June 29, 2021, we filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration. This legal action is prompted by the agencies’ failure to take the “hard look” required by the National Environmental Policy Act at their plans to more than quadruple the production of plutonium pits and split their production between the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site.

A copy of the complaint can be downloaded in the "Additional Resources" section below.

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