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- United States Restarts Nuclear Weapons Pit Production

As Heaven 17 so succinctly put in back in the early 80s... "Let's All Make A Bomb"
Los Alamos - Apr 28, 2003
Los Alamos National Laboratory has successfully made the first nuclear weapons pit in 14 years that meets specifications for use in the U.S. stockpile

The six-year effort at Los Alamos' plutonium processing facility restores the nation's ability to make nuclear weapons, a capability the United States lost when the Rocky Flats Plant near Boulder, Colo., shut down in June 1989.

On hand to mark the milestone and to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Laboratory's founding were U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM, Ambassador Linton Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, University of California President Richard Atkinson and Ralph Erickson, manager of NNSA's Los Alamos Site Office.

"The Laboratory has delivered on a major commitment to the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, Congress and the taxpayers," said Pete Nanos, Los Alamos' interim director.

A pit is the fissile core of a nuclear weapon's physics package. The newly made pit, called Qual-1 because it was built with fully qualified processes, is for the W88 warhead, which is carried on the Trident II D5 Submarine-Launched Cruise Missile, a cornerstone of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

"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," Nanos said.

Los Alamos' certification work includes fundamental physics experiments, material studies, ongoing subcritical experiments at the Nevada Test Site and hydrodynamic experiments at the newly completed Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrotest facility. Los Alamos has committed to complete the certification process and to have the ability to deliver a pit to the military that meets all stockpile requirements by 2007.

Los Alamos will make roughly half a dozen pits a year from now until 2007 to ensure certification is completed successfully and to put into place the capacity to begin making 10 stockpile pits a year by 2007.

The Department of Energy identified the Laboratory as the site to recapture the nation's capability to manufacture nuclear weapon pits through the 1996 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Environmental Impact Statement. The DOE selected Los Alamos in part because the Laboratory has the nation's only full-capability plutonium facility, and has made pits since the 1940s.

Without the fabrication capability Los Alamos has regained, the nation could not replace stockpile pits in the future. New pits will be needed to replace those in the current stockpile used during periodic destructive surveillance, or any pits that the surveillance program identifies with problems that affect weapon safety, reliability or performance.

To make Qual-1, Los Alamos brought back the expertise, along with drawings, specifications and equipment. The Plutonium Facility at Technical Area 55 was modified, new equipment acquired and new technologies, materials and processes developed.

More than 700 Laboratory staff and contractors have been involved in the effort that culminated in Qual-1, many working overtime.

The Laboratory has made 18 pits in the current program to recapture the capability to manufacture pits. The first pit, called Early Development Unit-1, was completed in February 1998.

In August 2002, the Laboratory made the first pit that exercised all 42 processes required to make a certifiable pit, one that could be certified for placement in the active nuclear weapons stockpile. In December 2002, all 42 processes were qualified.

Qual-1 is the first pit manufactured in accordance with all 42 qualified processes, which required extensive testing and analysis to demonstrate rigorous control.

In other words, Qual-1 meets all quality requirements and could be placed in the stockpile if needed, once all the required engineering and physics tests have been completed. All these processes went through step-by-step design, engineering and production reviews to confirm that the processes result in pits that meet specifications.

"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," Nanos said.

Los Alamos cleans pits with environmentally responsible cleaners instead of solvents that are prohibited today. Rocky Flats used a wrought process to make the initial shape while Los Alamos casts the part.

Rocky Flats used machine oil for all the manufacturing steps, while Los Alamos dry machines its pits and adds lubricant only for the final pass. Los Alamos pits are welded with lasers instead of older electron beam welders.

In December 1999, the Laboratory committed to complete a Qual-1 pit before June 2003. In March 2001, a baseline agreement between the Laboratory and the NNSA set deadlines and cost estimates for the current plan. Los Alamos and NNSA report to Congress quarterly on progress in meeting the plan milestones.

The total cost of the manufacturing program to date is roughly $350 million; the total project cost for the manufacturing and certification program, beginning with the new baseline, is estimated at $1.5 billion.

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