Russ Wellen

A plutonium pit, in which a nuclear chain reaction is ignited, is the living, beating heart of a nuclear warhead. Locus of the most potential energy on earth, it’s the closest mankind has ever come to producing a devil in a bottle. Fire and brimstone, if you will, concentrated to a fare-thee-well in an orb the size of a grapefruit. In 2005, David Samuels wrote for Discover magazine:

Each pit, slightly warm to the touch, has about 30 parts, which are often coated with nickel or beryllium. Engineered to extraordinary tolerances, the parts fit together like a three-dimensional puzzle.

Sounds kind of like the Lament Configuration, Hellraiser’s spherical variation on Lemarchand’s box (a device that supposedly accesses another dimension). Some recent history about nuclear pits from Nuclear Watch New Mexico:

The U.S. lost the capability to produce plutonium pits for its nuclear weapons stockpile in 1989 after a raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigating alleged environmental crimes at the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, Colorado. At that time, the Rocky Flats Plant was the stockpile plutonium pit production facility for the American nuclear weapons complex.… In 1996, DOE officially decided to relocate plutonium pit production to the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

More from a new report by the Congressional Research Service by Jonathan E. Medalia titled U.S. Nuclear Weapon ‘Pit’ Production Options for Congress:

Since then, the United States has made at most 11 pits per year (ppy). U.S. policy is to maintain existing nuclear weapons. To do this, the Department of Defense states that it needs the Department of Energy (DOE), which maintains U.S. nuclear weapons, to produce 50-80 ppy by 2030.

Bear in mind that the Pantex nuclear facility in Amarillo, Texas stores a staggering 15,000 plutonium pits. (For what? Target practice on asteroids?) Meanwhile, Los Alamos sought to construct a building, called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility (CMRR-NF), to carry out design and support-work for the pits. A 25-year-old activist organization called the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) has led the charge to block the facility through sustained lobbying on Capitol Hill and via the courts using an environmental pretext (that the CMRR-NF would present a seismic risk).

Thanks to the LASG, as well as Congress bending to the winds of austerity, the project, which had cost $635 million over the past decade and, when completed, was expected to total between $4 and $6 billion, was indefinitely delayed in February, 2012. But, the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory wasn’t so easily ― bad pun alert! ― deterred. LASG Executive Director Greg Mello writes that, in 2012, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the lab

… started preparing another plan featuring multiple underground factory “modules” to be built in the 3-acre site where the now-cancelled CMRR-NF was to be built and connected to existing buildings by tunnels. Congressional sources believe these underground “modules” would cost in excess of $1 billion each, … The [2014] National Defense Authorization Act, signed by the President, authorizes construction of at least two modules provided the [Department of Energy, of which the National Nuclear Security Administration is a subset, and the Department of Defense], and military agree the modular plan is best.

Of the Congressional Research Service report, for which he was consulted, Mello writes (emphasis his):

Superficially [it’s] about what the options are to provide 80 pits per year production capacity. [But not only does it explain] one dozen ways to do things differently, but when all of the combinations of buildings and multiple shifts and lower pit production requirements are all included, dozens of possibilities that did not involve CMRR-NF and also not new underground modules.

Mello concludes: “What this report says is that not building anything can provide that highest capacity that could possibly be needed.”

Finally, he cautions us that (this time my emphasis):

In the nuclear weapons complex spending money is considered a good unto itself. … a sign of American nuclear strength, a kind of deterrence all by itself.


Russ Wellen is a nuclear-weapons researcher and analyst. He also serves as the editor of the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

Image via Wikipedia.